Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite, transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitoes. Malaria produces recurrent attacks of chills and fever. Malaria kills an estimated 1 million people each year worldwide.
A malaria infection is generally characterized by recurrent attacks with the following signs and symptoms:
- Moderate to severe shaking chills
- High fever
- Profuse sweating as body temperature falls
Other signs and symptoms may include:
Malaria signs and symptoms typically begin within a few weeks after being bitten by an infected mosquito. However, some types of malaria parasites can lie dormant in your body for months, or even years.
When to see a doctor
Talk to your doctor if you experience a high fever while living in or after traveling to a high-risk malaria region. The parasites that cause malaria can lie dormant in your body for months. If you have severe symptoms, seek emergency medical attention.
The biggest risk factor for developing malaria is to live in or to visit tropical areas where the disease is common.
Risks of more severe disease
People at increased risk of serious disease include:
- Young children and infants
- Travelers coming from areas with no malaria
- Pregnant women and their unborn children
Poverty, lack of knowledge, and little or no access to health care also contribute to malaria deaths worldwide.
In most cases, malaria deaths are related to one or more of these serious complications:
- Cerebral malaria.
- Breathing problems.
- Organ failure.
- Severe anemia.
- Low blood sugar.
Tests and diagnosis
Blood tests can show the presence of the parasite and help tailor treatment by determining:
- Whether you have malaria
- Which type of malaria parasite is causing your symptoms
- If your infection is caused by a parasite resistant to certain drugs
- Whether the disease is affecting any of your vital organs
Some blood tests can take several days to complete, while others can produce results in less than 15 minutes.
Treatments and drugs
The types of drugs and the length of treatment will vary, depending on:
- Which type of malaria parasite you have
- The severity of your symptoms
- Your age
- Whether you’re pregnant
The most common antimalarial drugs include:
- Quinine sulfate
- Combination of atovaquone and proguanil
The history of antimalarial medicine has been marked by a constant struggle between evolving drug-resistant parasites and the search for new drug formulations. In many parts of the world, for instance, resistance to chloroquine has rendered the drug ineffective.
If you’re going to be traveling to a location where malaria is common, talk to your doctor a few months ahead of time about drugs you can take — before, during and after your trip — that can help protect you from malaria parasites.
In general, the drugs taken to prevent malaria are the same drugs used to treat the disease. Your doctor needs to know where you’ll be traveling so that he or she can prescribe the drug that will work best on the type of malaria parasite most commonly found in that region.
No vaccine yet
Scientists around the world are trying to develop a safe and effective vaccine for malaria. As of yet, however, there is still no malaria vaccine approved for human use.
Reducing exposure to mosquitoes
In countries where malaria is common, prevention also involves keeping mosquitoes away from humans. Strategies include:
- Spraying your home. Treating your home’s walls with insecticide can help kill adult mosquitoes that come inside.
- Sleeping under a net. Bed nets, particularly those treated with insecticide, are especially recommended for pregnant women and young children.
- Covering your skin. During active mosquito times, usually from dusk to dawn, wear pants and long-sleeved shirts.
- Spraying clothing and skin. Sprays containing permethrin are safe to use on clothing, while sprays containing DEET can be used on skin.