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Malaria is a serious disease that causes a high fever and chills. You can get it from a bite by an infected mosquito. Malaria is rare in the United States. It is most often found in Africa, Southern Asia, Central America, and South America.
Malaria is caused by a bite from a mosquito infected with parasites. In very rare cases, people can get malaria if they come into contact with infected blood. A developing fetus may get the disease from its mother. You cannot get malaria just by being near a person who has the disease.
Most malaria infections cause symptoms like the flu, such as a high fever, chills, and muscle pain. Symptoms tend to come and go in cycles. Some types of malaria may cause more serious problems, such as damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, or brain. These types can be deadly.
Your doctor will order a blood test to check for the malaria parasite in your blood.
Medicines usually can treat the illness. But some malaria parasites may survive because they are in your liver or they are resistant to the medicine.
Get medical help right away if you have been in an area where malaria is present, were exposed to mosquitoes, and get symptoms that are like the flu. These include a high fever, chills, and muscle pain.
You may be able to prevent malaria by taking medicine before, during, and after travel to an area where malaria is present. But using medicine to prevent malaria doesn't always work. This is partly due to the parasites being resistant to some medicines in some parts of the world.
Learning about malaria:
A bite from a parasite-infected mosquito causes malaria. There are five species of Plasmodium (P.) parasites that infect people.
Malaria is spread when an infected Anopheles mosquito bites a person. This is the only type of mosquito that can spread malaria. The mosquito becomes infected by biting an infected person and drawing blood that contains the parasite. When that mosquito bites another person, that person becomes infected.
In the United States, people who develop malaria almost always got infected while traveling in parts of the world where malaria is common. For more information, see the topic Travel Health.
Malaria can begin with flu-like symptoms. In the early stages, infection from P. falciparum is similar to infection from P. vivax, P. malariae, and P. ovale. You may have no symptoms or symptoms that are less severe if you are partially immune to malaria.
The time from the initial malaria infection until symptoms appear (incubation period) typically ranges from:2
Symptoms can appear in 7 days. And the time between exposure and signs of illness may sometimes be as long as 8 to 10 months with P. vivax and P. ovale.
The incubation period may be longer if you are taking medicine to prevent infection (chemoprophylaxis) or because you have some immunity due to previous infections.
In regions where malaria is present, people who get infected many times may have the disease but have few or no symptoms.3 Also, how bad malaria symptoms are can vary depending on your general health, what kind of malaria parasite you have, and whether you still have your spleen.
In the early stages, malaria symptoms are sometimes similar to those of many other infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Symptoms may include:
Symptoms may appear in cycles. The time between episodes of fever and other symptoms varies with the specific parasite you are infected with. Episodes of symptoms may occur:
P. falciparum does not usually cause a regular, cyclic fever.
The cyclic pattern of malaria symptoms is due to the life cycle of malaria parasites as they develop, reproduce, and are released from the red blood cells and liver cells in the human body. This cycle of symptoms is also one of the major signs that you are infected with malaria.
Other common symptoms of malaria include:
In rare cases, malaria can lead to impaired function of the brain or spinal cord, seizures, or loss of consciousness.
Infection with the P. falciparum parasite is usually more serious and may become life-threatening.
There are other conditions with symptoms similar to a malaria infection. It is important that you see your doctor to find out the cause of your symptoms.
When you're bitten by a malaria-infected mosquito, the parasites that cause malaria are released into your blood and infect your liver cells. The parasite reproduces in the liver cells, which then burst open. This allows thousands of new parasites to enter the bloodstream and infect red blood cells. The parasites reproduce again in the blood cells, kill the blood cells, and then move to other uninfected blood cells.
After the early stages, life-threatening complications may develop rapidly with P. falciparum and P. knowlesi. If the infected person is not treated, serious complications or death can occur.
But you may recover in a week to a month (or longer) after being infected with P. vivax, P. malariae, or P. ovale, even without treatment.
Malaria can be a very serious disease for a pregnant woman and her developing fetus, for people without a spleen, and for young children. Medicine choices are limited for a pregnant woman or a child. Infection with P. falciparum can lead to death for a pregnant woman and her fetus. For these reasons, a pregnant woman should not travel to an area where she could get P. falciparum malaria. Visit the CDC website (www.cdc.gov/malaria/travelers/index.html) to find out whether malaria is a problem in the country where you will be traveling.
Malaria caused by P. falciparum may come back (recur) at irregular intervals for up to 2 years if treatment is not complete.
Malaria caused by P. vivax and P. ovale may recur at irregular intervals for up to 3 to 4 years, but medicine can prevent relapses.
P. malariae can remain in the blood of an infected person for more than 30 years, usually without causing any symptoms.
Risk factors (things that increase your risk) for getting malaria include:
Your risk of getting malaria depends on your age, history of exposure to malaria, and whether you are pregnant. Most adults who have lived in areas where malaria is present have developed partial immunity to malaria because of previous infections and so almost never develop severe disease. But young children who live in these areas and travelers to these areas are especially at risk for malaria because they have not developed this immunity.
Pregnant women are more likely than nonpregnant women to get severe malaria, because the immune system is suppressed during pregnancy.
Also, pregnant women, young children, older adults, and people with other health problems are more likely to have serious complications if they get malaria.
You can take measures to reduce the risk of malaria if you live in areas where the disease is present or if you are traveling in these areas.
Malaria is more severe in people who have had their spleen removed (splenectomy).
Call a doctor immediately if you have been in an area where malaria is present, were exposed to mosquitoes, and develop flu-like symptoms (such as fever, chills, headache, and nausea).
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. If you get better on your own, you won't need treatment. If you get worse, you and your doctor will decide what to do next.
Do not wait to call a doctor if you think you have malaria. Call a doctor immediately.
For people who live for many years in countries where malaria is common and have some immunity to malaria, watchful waiting is okay for mild malaria symptoms. Flu-like symptoms may also be caused by many other diseases or health conditions. Watchful waiting is not appropriate for most travelers. If you have a question about your symptoms, call your doctor.
Health professionals who can check out symptoms that may be caused by malaria include:
In the United States, call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) toll-free at 1-800-232-4636 (1-800-CDC-INFO) or visit the CDC's malaria website (www.cdc.gov/malaria) to receive the most current information about malaria and appropriate travel precautions. Your doctor or local health department may also have this information.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Doctors use thick and thin blood smears to find out whether malaria-causing parasites are in your blood. These tests should be done if you have been in a region where malaria is present, you were exposed to mosquitoes, and you have flu-like symptoms.
A blood test that can diagnose malaria rapidly also is available. If this rapid test indicates a person has malaria, the results are usually confirmed with a blood smear.
Other useful tests that may be done include:
Other tests being developed to diagnose malaria include genetic tests or other blood tests that highlight parasites by using special stains. These experimental tests are not as easy to do and are not as frequently used as blood smears.
In the United States, malaria is an infectious disease that must be reported to the local or state health department.
Medicine can prevent malaria and is needed to treat the disease. Several things influence the choice of medicine, including:
Malaria is rare in the United States. But it is widespread in other parts of the world. Find out about the risk for malaria before you travel internationally. The most accurate information about malaria risk and medicine resistance in specific countries is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
If you have malaria, medicine choice is based on:
If you have been in an area where malaria occurs, were exposed to mosquitoes, and have flu-like symptoms, but tests do not show the malaria parasite in your blood, the tests should be repeated 3 or 4 times to confirm that you do not have a malaria infection. During treatment, tests are repeated to follow the course of the infection and to check whether the number of parasites is decreasing.
Your age and health condition are important factors in selecting a medicine to prevent or treat malaria. Pregnant women, children, people who are very old, people who have other health problems, and those who did not take medicine to prevent malaria infection require special consideration.
Prevention of malaria involves protecting yourself against mosquito bites and taking antimalarial medicines. But public health officials strongly recommend that young children and pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where malaria is common.
The most current information about malaria is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). If you are planning international travel, you can learn about the risk of malaria in that geographic area and the medicines recommended to prevent infection by contacting:
To prevent mosquito bites, follow these guidelines:
Other steps that may be helpful in reducing the risk of malaria include using air conditioning and electric fans, wearing protective clothing, using aerosol insecticides in your house, and taking certain antimalarial medicines.5
The selection of medicines to prevent malaria depends on the geographic region where you may be exposed to malaria and your health condition (such as being pregnant, being elderly or young, being sick, or having immunity or resistance to malaria, or having allergies or sensitivity to the medicine).
If you are going to a location where malaria is present, it is very important to take preventive medicines and to follow the correct schedule for taking them. The majority of people who become infected with malaria do not take preventive malaria medicines or do not follow the correct dosing schedule.
Scientists are studying malaria vaccines to see whether the vaccines are effectively preventing malaria infection. But no vaccine has been approved to prevent malaria.1, 5 Work continues on improving vaccines for preventing malaria.
If you plan to travel in remote areas where malaria is present, it is very important to take preventive medicines and to follow the correct schedule for taking them. The majority of people who become infected with malaria did not take preventive malaria medicines or did not follow the correct dosing schedule.
If you are going to areas where there is no medical care available, you can get medicine before you leave and carry it with you while you travel. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to use the medicine if you should develop malaria symptoms. This is a temporary measure until you can get medical care. Seek medical care as soon as possible (ideally within 24 hours).
The most current information about the prevention and treatment of malaria is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Contact the CDC at its toll-free phone number (1-800-232-4636) or website (www.cdc.gov/malaria). The WHO website is www.who.int/malaria.
You can take medicines called antimalarials to prevent and treat malaria. Malaria is a very serious disease, and its presence in many regions of the world is well known. So if you are traveling to an area where malaria is present, it is important to reduce the risk of infection by taking medicine before you travel, while you are in the area, and after you return home. Which medicine you take is based on:
It is important to know which species of parasite is present, because serious complications may develop rapidly in a person who is infected with Plasmodium (P.) falciparum. Drug treatment is based on:
During malaria treatment, your doctor may do daily blood smears to follow the course of the infection. Most medicines for malaria are ones you take by mouth. But you might get intravenous (IV) medicines if there are complications or your condition gets worse. If there are no complications, your fever will clear in 36 to 48 hours. And most parasites will disappear from your blood within 2 or 3 days.
The medicines used may change as malaria parasites develop resistance and as new medicines are developed.
There are several medicines for preventing and treating malaria.
A doctor or local health department can consult the CDC for specific treatment guidelines for your travel destination. Standard medicines for preventing malaria include:
When a malaria infection is caused by resistant strains of P. falciparum or P. vivax, treatment may be more difficult. When treatment with chloroquine does not work, you must take other medicines. These medicines may include:
You can get antimalarials intravenously (IV) if you are unable to take pills. IV delivery is also used for severe malaria. In the United States, quinidine is the medicine typically used in these situations.
Some people have recurring flu-like symptoms for years after the initial malaria infection. Relapses from infection of P. vivax or P. ovale are the most common and can be prevented by taking primaquine.
Exchange blood transfusions may be considered for treating severe cases of malaria if:6
Exchange blood transfusion is the quickest way to remove parasites. This procedure involves withdrawing blood from you at the same time that donor blood is being injected. During this exchange, the amount of blood in your body stays constant. Quinine is given by needle into a vein (intravenously) at the same time as the blood transfusion. Parasite density is checked every 12 hours until it is less than 1%.6
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Malaria Page|
|1600 Clifton Road|
|Atlanta, GA 30333|
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Malaria Page provides up-to-date information about the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of malaria. The website contains frequently asked questions about malaria, facts for travelers who are planning to visit areas where malaria is present, and maps showing where malaria is common. It also offers resources for health professionals who are dealing with malaria in patients.
|National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health|
|NIAID Office of Communications and Government Relations|
|6610 Rockledge Drive, MSC 6612|
|Bethesda, MD 20892-6612|
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases conducts research and provides consumer information on infectious and immune-system-related diseases.
|World Health Organization: Malaria|
|Avenue Appia 20|
|1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland|
The World Health Organization (WHO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, has 192 member states. WHO promotes technical cooperation among nations on health issues, carries out programs to control and eliminate disease, and strives to improve the quality of human life.
The Malaria webpage has information on travelers' health and on the prevention, control, and treatment of malaria.
- Suh KN, et al. (2004). Malaria. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 170(11): 1693–1702.
- American Public Health Association (2008). Malaria. In DL Heymann, ed., Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, 19th ed., pp. 373–393. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.
- Fairhurst RM, Wellems TE (2010). Plasmodium species (malaria). In GL Mandell et al., eds., Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 7th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3437–3462. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
- Asidi A, et al. (2012). Loss of household protection from use of insecticide-treated nets against pyrethroid-resistant mosquitoes, Benin. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 18(7): 1101–1106. Also available online: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/18/7/12-0218_article.htm.
- Croft AM (2010). Malaria: Prevention in travellers, search date November 2009. Online version of Clinical Evidence (7).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Treatment of malaria (guidelines for clinicians). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/resources/pdf/clinicalguidance.pdf.
Other Works Consulted
- Day N (2008). Malaria. In M Eddleston et al., eds., Oxford Handbook of Tropical Medicine, 3rd ed., pp. 31–65. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Freedman DO (2008). Malaria prevention in short-term travelers. New England Journal of Medicine, 359(6): 603–612.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease|
|Last Revised||August 5, 2013|
Last Revised: August 5, 2013
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