What you need to know about: Malaria (mah-LARE-ee-ah)
What is malaria?
Malaria is a serious disease caused by a parasite. There are four different types of malaria that can affect people, all with very similar symptoms. The most severe type is caused by Plasmodium falciparum , it can be rapidly fatal and is responsible for the majority of malaria-related deaths.
What are the symptoms of malaria? What does malaria cause?
Symptoms usually begin 10 days to 4 weeks after infection. Malaria produces fever, headache, vomiting, shaking chills, and other flu-like symptoms. Malaria may cause anemia and jaundice (yellow coloring of the skin and eyes) because of the destruction of red blood cells. If drugs are not available for treatment or the parasites are resistant to them, the infection can progress rapidly and become life threatening.
How common is malaria?
Malaria is found throughout the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world and causes more than 300 million severe illnesses and at least one million deaths each year. About 1,200 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Most cases in the U.S. are in immigrants and travelers returning from areas of malaria transmission.
Who is likely to get malaria? Who should be especially careful about malaria?
Anyone living or traveling in any area of the world where malaria is transmitted may become infected. Those who live abroad are at a greater risk. However, preventive treatment can greatly reduce the risk of infection.
Malarial infection during pregnancy is a major public health problem in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. In these areas, maternal death may result either directly from severe malaria or indirectly from malaria-related severe anemia. In addition, unfavorable pregnancy outcomes include spontaneous abortion, neonatal death, and low birth weight.
How is malaria spread?
People get malaria from the bite of a malaria-infected mosquito. When the parasite enters the human body, it lives in the liver before moving on to the red blood cells. Once inside the red blood cells, the parasites grow and multiply. The red blood cells burst, freeing more parasites to attack other red blood cells. A mosquito can then bite the infected individual, which enables it to transmit it to other humans.
How do I protect myself from malaria?
When living or traveling in malaria-risk areas:
- Apply insect repellent that contains DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide). Be sure to read label instructions. Spray clothing as well as exposed skin with repellent.
- Sleep under mosquito netting (bed nets).
- Dress in long sleeves and long pants when you are outside.
- Treat clothes and bed nets with permethrin, available as a spray or liquid.
- Treat living areas, particularly if staying in quarters that are not air-conditioned or do not have window screens, with pyrethroid-containing flying-insect spray.
How do I protect others from malaria?
If you are donating blood, inform the blood bank personnel if you have had malaria in the past.
What do I do if I think I have malaria?
Inform your healthcare provider of your recent travel to countries where malaria exists. Symptoms can appear up to a year after the time of infection.
How are malaria infections diagnosed?
Malaria may not be considered during diagnosis because it shares signs and symptoms with other illnesses including typhoid fever, rheumatic fever, and bacterial meningitis. Malaria is diagnosed by observing the parasite in a blood sample.
How is malaria treated?
Malaria can be treated with prescription drugs . The type of drugs and length of treatment depend on which type of malaria is diagnosed and on the age and health of the patient.
Should I worry about malaria when I travel out of the country?
Always consult a travel health professional such as a tropical medicine clinic or travel medicine specialist before traveling to sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, or tropical South and Central America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Traveler's Health website provides advise for the traveler and the latest information about malaria-risk countries.
Find out what prescriptions you need 4 to 6 weeks before travel. Drugs to prevent malaria, called antimalarials, are available only by prescription. Follow instructions for taking antimalarials carefully, without missing doses; taking them incorrectly can lead to decreased protection or to increased side effects.