What Is Malaria?
Although malaria is almost wiped out in the United States, you can still get the disease when you travel to other parts of the world. The United States has about 1,700 malaria cases every year from immigrants and travelers returning from countries where malaria is more common.
These countries have climates that are hot enough for the malaria parasites and the mosquitoes that carry them to thrive. Before you travel, check the CDC’s website to see whether your destination is a hotspot for malaria. You may have to take pills before, during, and after your trip to lower your chances of getting it.
Malaria Causes and Risk Factors
Malaria is caused by plasmodium parasites, which are carried by anophelesmosquitoes.
Only female mosquitoes spread the malaria parasites. When a mosquito bites a person who has malaria, it drinks the person’s blood, which contains the parasites. When the mosquito bites another person, it injects the parasites into that person. That’s how the disease spreads.
Once the parasites enter your body, they travel to your liver, where they multiply. They invade your red blood cells, which carry oxygen. The parasites get inside them, lay their eggs, and multiply until the red blood cell bursts. This releases more parasites into your bloodstream. As they attack more of your healthy red blood cells, this infection can make you very sick.
Malaria isn’t contagious, meaning it can’t be spread from person to person. But it can be spread in the following ways:
- From a pregnant mother to their unborn baby
- Sharing needles
- Blood transfusions
- Organ transplant
Malaria is most common in warm-weather climates. It’s found most often in:
- South and Southeast Asia
- The Middle East
- Central and South America
Types of Malaria
There are five species of plasmodiumparasites that affect humans. Two of them are considered the most dangerous:
P. falciparum. This is the most common malaria parasite in Africa, and it causes the most malaria-related deaths in the world. P. falciparum multiplies very quickly, causing serious blood loss and clogged blood vessels.
P. vivax . This is the malaria parasite most commonly found outside of sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Asia and Latin America. This species can lie dormant, then rise up to infect your blood months or years after the mosquito bite.
Symptoms for malaria usually start about 10-15 days after the infected mosquito bite. Along with high fever, shaking chills, and sweating, they can include:
Throwing up or feeling like you're going to
- Being very tired (fatigue)
- Body aches
- Yellow skin (jaundice)
- Kidney failure
- Bloody stools
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Because the signs are so similar to cold or flu symptoms, it might be hard to tell what you have at first.
- Malaria symptoms don’t always show up within 2 weeks, especially if it’s a P. vivax infection.
- People who live in areas with lots of malaria cases may become partially immune after being exposed to it throughout their lives. But this can change if they move to a place where they’re not around the parasite.
When to Call a Doctor About Malaria
Given how quickly malaria can become life-threatening, it’s important to get medical care as quickly as possible. Young children, infants, and pregnant women have an especially high chance for severe cases of malaria.
Seek care if you get a high fever while living in or traveling to an area that has a high chance for malaria. You should still get medical help even if you see the symptoms many weeks, months, or a year after your travel.
A blood test can show if you have malaria, but your doctor will also ask you about your medical history and any recent travel and do a physical exam.
The blood test can tell your doctor:
- If the parasite is in your blood
- If certain medications will work against the parasite
- If your body has ever made antibodies to fight off malaria
The treatment your doctor recommends will depend on things like:
- The type of parasite you have
- How bad your symptoms are
- The geographic area where you got infected
- Your age
- Whether you’re pregnant
Medications doctors use to treat malaria include:
Chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine. Your doctor may recommend one of these drugs if your symptoms aren’t serious and you’re in an area where the parasite hasn’t become resistant to chloroquine.
Artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT). This combines two medicines that work in different ways. They’re used to treat milder cases of malaria or as part of a treatment plan for more serious cases.
Atovaquone-proguanil, artemether-lumefantrine. These combinations are other options in areas where the parasite has become resistant to chloroquine. They also can be given to children.
Mefloquine. This medication is another option if chloroquine can’t be used, but it’s been linked to rare but serious side effects related to your brain and is only used as a last resort.
Artesunate. If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may recommend this drug as treatment for the first 24 hours, then follow it with 3 days of artemisinin-based combination therapy.
Some parasites that cause malaria have become resistant to almost all the medicines used to treat the illness, so researchers are always looking for new drugs that work.
Some people are more likely to have serious health problems if they get malaria, including:
- Young children and infants
- Older adults
- People who travel from places that don’t have the vaccine
- Pregnant women and their unborn children
These health problems can include: