Overview

What is malaria?

Malaria is an infection of a part of the blood called the red blood cells. It is spread by mosquitoes that carry a parasite that causes malaria. If a mosquito carrying this parasite bites you, the parasite can get into your blood. The parasite lays eggs, which develop into more parasites, and they feed on your blood cells until you get very sick. If left untreated, malaria can quickly become very serious and can even be fatal.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of malaria?

The symptoms of malaria include:

  • High fever (can often be 104° F and higher)
  • Chills
  • Shaking
  • Extreme sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Discomfort (called malaise) and body aches
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Causes & Risk Factors

Where is malaria most common?

Malaria is a health problem in many tropical and subtropical countries, including portions of Central and South America, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Africa, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. It can also be a problem for people visiting these countries. If you are traveling to a tropical area or to a country where malaria is common, you should be aware of the risk and take some precautions. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web site for information about travel health concerns for international locations before you go.

Prevention

How can I protect myself from getting malaria?

You should do whatever you can to keep from getting mosquito bites. If you can, sleep in a room with screens on the windows and doors. Use a mosquito net over your bed. If possible, spray the net with permethrin, a spray that repels mosquitoes. During the evening, wear light-colored pants and shirts with long sleeves. It’s important to protect yourself with a bug repellent spray that contains no more than 35% of a chemical called DEET. Avoid going outdoors without protection in the evening, when mosquitoes are typically more active. Medicine is also available to help prevent malaria.

What medicines can I take to prevent malaria?

If you plan to travel to a country where malaria is common, you’ll probably take a medicine that may keep you from getting malaria. This is called “prophylactic” malaria medicine. Remember, however, no medicine can protect you 100% and you should still take other precautions to prevent malaria.

Prophylactic malaria medicines require you to start taking the medicine a few days or a week before you leave on your trip. You keep taking the medicine during your trip and after your trip for about 1 to 4 weeks, depending on which medicine you are taking. It’s important to keep taking the medicine after your trip because the malaria parasites could still be in your blood. If you stop taking the medicine too soon, it could give the parasites an opportunity to grow and make you sick. Malaria medicines have some side effects, and not everyone can take them. Your doctor can tell you which medicine is right for you. What type of medicine you take also depends on where you will be traveling.

Mefloquine and atovaquone/proguanil are two medicines you can take. If you can’t take one of these, your doctor might recommend you take doxycycline. Doxycycline makes you sunburn easily, so you must wear a hat, long sleeves and sunscreen whenever you’re outside during the day.

If you’re traveling to parts of Central America, the Dominican Republic, Haiti or some areas of the Middle East, your doctor may prescribe chloroquine.

Beware of homeopathic medicines advertised to prevent malaria. Because homeopathic medicines are not regulated, it’s hard to know whether they will be effective. The CDC also warns against purchasing prophylactic malaria medicines overseas. In some countries, medicines sold to help prevent malaria may be fake or less effective than necessary.

Other Organizations

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • What should I do before I travel to lower my risk of getting malaria?
  • Are there any medicines I should take before I travel?
  • What areas of the world have the highest indicence of malaria?
  • What can I do while I am in one of these areas that will help me to avoid getting malaria?
  • Should I wait until I get to a country to buy medicines to prevent malaria?
  • Can I give someone else malaria?
  • If I do get malaria, should I travel while I have symptoms?

Citations

  • Malaria Prevention in Travelers by G Juckett, MD( 05/01/99, http://www.aafp.org/afp/990501ap/2523.html)