Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite. The parasite is spread to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes. People who have malaria usually feel very sick with a high fever and shaking chills.
While the disease is uncommon in temperate climates, malaria is still common in tropical and subtropical countries. Each year nearly 290 million people are infected with malaria, and more than 400,000 people die of the disease.
To reduce malaria infections, world health programs distribute preventive drugs and insecticide-treated bed nets to protect people from mosquito bites. The World Health Organization has recommended a malaria vaccine for use in children who live in countries with high numbers of malaria cases.
Protective clothing, bed nets and insecticides can protect you while traveling. You also can take preventive medicine before, during and after a trip to a high-risk area. Many malaria parasites have developed resistance to common drugs used to treat the disease.
Where does malaria usually occur?
Malaria occurs all over the world and happens most often in developing countries and areas with warm temperatures and high humidity, including:
- Central and South America.
- Dominican Republic, Haiti and other areas in the Caribbean.
- Eastern Europe.
- South and Southeast Asia.
- Islands in the Central and South Pacific Ocean (Oceania).
Who might get malaria?
Anyone can get malaria, but people who live in Africa have a higher risk of infection than others. Young children, older people and those who are pregnant have an increased risk of dying from malaria. People who live in poverty and don’t have access to healthcare are more likely to have complications from the disease.
More than 90% of malaria deaths occur in Africa, and nearly all of the people who die are young children. More than 80% of malaria deaths in the region in 2020 involved children under the age of 5 years old.
Symptoms of Malaria
Malaria is a disease that typically features a fever, chills, and headaches. It can progress to cause severe or life threatening complications.
How it affects people can vary widely. Some people have mild or no symptoms, but others can become severely ill.
Doctors divide malaria symptoms into two categoriesTrusted Source: uncomplicated or severe malaria.
Uncomplicated malaria refers to when a person has symptoms but no sign of severe infection or dysfunction of the vital organs. However, without treatment, or if a person has low immunity, it can progress to severe malaria.
Symptoms can resemble those of flu and can typically last 6–10 hours and recur every second day. However, some strains of the parasite can have a longer cycle or cause mixed symptoms.
Overall symptoms include:
- fever and chills
- nausea and vomiting
- body aches
- an enlarged liver
- mild jaundice, which can cause the eyes to appear yellow
- a higher breathing rate
- a general feeling of being unwell
In areas where malaria is uncommon, a doctor may diagnose flu instead of malaria. If a person has recently visited an area where the disease is present and develops these symptoms, they should discuss their visit with their doctor.
When do symptoms begin if you’re infected with malaria?
Malaria symptoms usually appear 10 days to one month after the person was infected. Depending on the type of parasite, symptoms can be mild. Some people don’t feel sick for up to a year after the mosquito bite. Parasites can sometimes live in the body for several years without causing symptoms.
Some types of malaria, depending on the type of parasite, can occur again. The parasites are inactive in your liver and then are released into your bloodstream after years. The symptoms begin again when the parasites begin circulating.
How is malaria treated?
It’s important to start treating malaria as soon as possible. Your provider will prescribe medications to kill the malaria parasite. Some parasites are resistant to malaria drugs.
Some drugs are given in combination with other drugs. The type of parasite will determine what type of medication you take and how long you take it.
Antimalarial drugs include:
- Artemisinin drugs (artemether and artesunate). The best treatment for Plasmodium falciparum malaria, if available, is artemisinin combination therapy.
- Atovaquone (Mepron®).
- Chloroquine. There are parasites that are resistant to this medication.
- Doxycycline (Doxy-100®, Monodox®, Oracea®).
Medications can cure you of malaria.
What are the side effects of medications to treat malaria?
Antimalarial drugs can cause side effects. Be sure to tell your provider about other medicines you’re taking, since antimalarial drugs can interfere with them. Depending on the medication, side effects may include:
- Gastrointestinal (GI) issues such as nausea and diarrhea.
- Increased sensitivity to sunlight.
- Insomnia and disturbing dreams.
- Psychological disorders and vision problems.
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
Can I prevent malaria?
If you plan on living temporarily in or traveling to an area where malaria is common, talk to your provider about taking medications to prevent malaria. You will need to take the drugs before, during and after your stay. Medications can greatly reduce the chances of getting malaria. These drugs can’t be used for treatment if you do develop malaria despite taking them.
You should also take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. To lower your chances of getting malaria, you should:
- Apply mosquito repellent with DEET (diethyltoluamide) to exposed skin.
- Drape mosquito netting over beds.
- Put screens on windows and doors.
- Treat clothing, mosquito nets, tents, sleeping bags and other fabrics with an insect repellent called permethrin.
- Wear long pants and long sleeves to cover your skin.
A vaccine is now available for preventing malaria, but it is not for use by travelers. It has approval for children who live in moderate-to-high risk areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, where infection with Plasmodium falconium is common. So far, health experts have administered over 2.3 million doses, and it has a good safety profile.
While the vaccine will save lives, it is not 100% effective.
Currently, in children under the age of 5 years, it: