What is malaria?
Malaria is a serious disease caused by a parasite. The parasite is carried by one type of mosquito in certain parts of the world (not in the United States). Humans get the disease when an infected mosquito bites them. People with malaria get very sick with flu-like symptoms. If left untreated, malaria can quickly become very serious. It can even be fatal.
Malaria is almost wiped out in the United States. But it’s common in developing countries with warm climates. These areas include:
- Central and South America
- Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic)
- Eastern Europe
- Southeast Asia
- South Pacific
People who travel to these countries could get sick. If you’re traveling to an area where malaria is common, you should be aware of the risk and take precautions. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for information about travel health concerns for international locations before you go.
Symptoms of malaria
There are 4 types of malaria parasites that can infect people. The symptoms of each kind are generally the same. One kind tends to cause more severe symptoms and is more likely to lead to death than other kinds. Common symptoms of malaria include:
- high fever (can often be 104° F and higher)
- extreme sweating
- discomfort (called malaise) and body aches
- nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Most people experience symptoms 10 days to 4 weeks after an infection. It’s possible to not have symptoms for up to 1 year after you’re infected. Two types of malaria can occur again. The parasites can go dormant in the liver for several months up to 4 years after infection. When they become active again, the person gets sick again.
What causes malaria?
Malaria is caused by a parasite that is carried by mosquitos. If a mosquito carrying this parasite bites you, the parasite can get into your blood. The parasite lays eggs, which develop into more parasites. They feed on your red blood cells until you get very sick.
Because the parasites live in the blood, malaria can also be spread through other ways. These include blood transfusions, organ transplants, shared use of contaminated needles, and from mother to fetus. It’s not a contagious disease, so it can’t be spread from person to person like a cold or other illness.
How is malaria diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you where you traveled. He or she will also do a blood test that can confirm if you have malaria. If you suspect you have malaria, tell your doctor right away.
Can malaria be prevented or avoided?
There are steps you can take to avoid getting malaria. To protect yourself from getting it, you should do whatever you can to keep from getting mosquito bites.
- Sleep in a room with screens on the windows and doors.
- Use a mosquito net over your bed.
- Spray the net with permethrin, a spray that repels mosquitoes. Wear light-colored pants and shirts with long sleeves.
- 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.
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 the disease. This is called “prophylactic” malaria medicine. (Prophylactic means it’s used to prevent disease.) But remember that no medicine can protect you 100%. You should still take other precautions to prevent being bitten by mosquitos.
See your doctor well before your trip. You will need to start taking the medicine a few days or weeks before you leave the country. You take the medicine during your trip and for 1 to 4 weeks after. How long you take it after your trip depends on which medicine you’re taking. It’s important to keep taking the medicine after your trip. The malaria parasites could still be in your blood. If you stop taking the medicine too soon, it could give the parasites a chance 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’ll be traveling.
Beware of homeopathic medicines advertised to prevent malaria. These medicines aren’t regulated by the government. So it’s hard to know whether they will be effective. The CDC warns against purchasing prophylactic malaria medicines overseas. In some countries, medicines sold to help prevent malaria may be fake or less effective than necessary.
If you’re pregnant, the CDC advises that you not travel to areas where you could get malaria. Symptoms of malaria are more severe in pregnant women. It can also cause problems with the pregnancy. These include miscarriage, preterm birth, or stillbirth. If you must travel to one of these places, you need to take the preventive medicine.
Malaria can be cured with prescription medicines. What kind of medicine you take and how long you take it depend on several factors, including:
- The type of malaria you have.
- Where you were infected.
- Your age.
- If you’re pregnant.
- How sick you are when you start treatment.
The disease can become serious quickly. Treatment should start as early as possible.
Living with malaria
If you’re treated for malaria with the right medicines, you should be cured. All of the parasite will be destroyed. But if the disease is left untreated or isn’t treated correctly, it could continue. People who get one of the types that can go dormant in the liver sometimes need more than one medicine. This helps prevent a relapse months or years after infection. Another type of malaria can stay in the blood for decades if it’s left untreated. That’s why proper treatment for the specific type of malaria is so important.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What should I do before I travel to lower my risk of getting malaria?
- How soon before I travel should I make an appointment to see you?
- Are there any medicines I should take before I travel?
- What areas of the world have the highest incidence of malaria?
- What can I do while in one of these areas to help prevent 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 get malaria, should I travel while I have symptoms?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.