Malaria is an infectious disease caused by a parasite known as Plasmodium and is transmitted by the infected mosquitoes. Malaria is characterized by chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, and can sometimes be life-threatening.

Malaria is highly prevalent in tropical and subtropical countries, while it is uncommon in temperate climates. As per the reports nearly 660,000 people die due to malaria each year. As there is no vaccine for malaria, people are advised to take preventive medication before, after, and during their travel to locations where malaria is common. Another reason for malaria being more prevalent is many malaria parasites are immune to the common drugs used in the treatment of malaria.

Signs and symptoms

After the infected mosquito (female Anopheles) bites us and releases the parasite into the blood stream, it takes between seven and 30 days (an average of 15 days) for the symptoms to develop. This period is known as incubation period. In some people, symptoms may not develop for several months after infection as these parasites will be dormant.

Symptoms of malaria can be divided into uncomplicated or complicated (severe).

The most common symptoms of uncomplicated malaria are

  • Fever and chills
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • General weakness and body ache

The most common symptoms (when different body systems are affected by malaria) of complicated or severe malaria are:

  • Severe anemia (due to destruction of RBCs)
  • Kidney failure
  • Cerebral malaria (characterized by seizures, unconsciousness, abnormal behavior, confusion)
  • Cardiovascular collapse
  • Low blood sugar (after treatment with quinine in pregnant women)

The primary and major cause of malaria is the transmission of the parasite into the blood stream through the infected female Anopheles mosquito. Malaria is congenital; that means an infected mother can also pass the disease to the baby at birth. This disease is also transmitted by blood, so it can also be transmitted through an organ transplant, a transfusion, and use of shared needles or syringes.

The biggest risk factor is visiting the place where malaria is endemic.

People who are at risk of serious disease include:

  • Children and infants
  • Travelers from areas where malaria is uncommon
  • Pregnant women and the unborn children

Malaria can be lethal. In most cases, deaths due to malaria are related to one or more serious complications, which include:

  • Cerebral malaria is caused when the parasite-filled blood cells block small blood vessels in the brain, causing swelling and damage to the brain. Cerebral malaria may cause coma.
  • Breathing problem is due to accumulated fluid in the lungs known as pulmonary edema due to malaria.
  • Organ failure mainly kidneys or liver or spleen fail due to malaria and these conditions can be life-threatening.
  • Anemia is due to the destruction of red blood cells by the parasites.
  • Low blood sugar is due to severe forms of malaria itself and the drugs used for malaria treatment such as quinine. Very low blood sugar may lead to coma or death.

Malaria is diagnosed with the help of different types of blood tests which can show the presence of the parasite.

Your doctor may recommend you to take the blood smear test mainly to determine

  • if you have malaria
  • the type of malaria parasite causing symptoms
  • if the infection-causing parasite is resistant to certain drugs
  • whether the disease is affecting any of your vital organs

Some blood tests take several days to complete, while others can produce results in less than 15 minutes. One such is a rapid diagnostic test also known as antigen test which can give the diagnosis in few minutes. It is recommended that a positive test is followed with a blood smear examination.

Your doctor will prescribe medications based on the type of parasite responsible for your infection. Medications may not always clear you from infections as few parasites are resistant to drugs. If this condition occurs, your doctor uses more than one drug or change medications altogether to treat you.

The medications or antibiotics prescribed depend on the specific species of parasite identified, the severity of symptoms, and determination of drug resistance species. Medications can be given in the pill form or in the intravenous form depending on the above factors.

There is no vaccine for malaria, and no medication is 100% effective. Therefore the prevention of mosquito bites is of great importance. Prevent the mosquito bites by sleeping under bed nets; use clothing that covers most of the exposed skin to reduce the risk of bites. Also, treating clothes and bed nets with insecticides can prevent bites even further.

In case you are traveling to places where malaria is common, talk to your doctor and take preventive medication before, during, and after your trip.