Malaria is a serious tropical disease spread by mosquitoes. If it isn't diagnosed and treated quickly, it can be fatal.
A single mosquito bite is all it takes for someone to become infected.
Symptoms of malaria
It's important to be aware of the symptoms of malaria if you're travelling to areas where there's a high risk of the disease. This means that you can get medical attention quickly.
Symptoms are similar to those of flu and usually appear 6 to 30 days after the mosquito bite, but it can sometimes take up to a year for symptoms to start.
The initial symptoms of malaria include:
a high temperature (fever)
muscle aches or pains
vomiting and or diarrhoea
These symptoms can start mild and may be difficult to identify as malaria.
When to seek medical attention
Malaria is a serious illness that can get worse very quickly. It can be fatal if not treated quickly.
The effects of malaria are usually more severe in:
Urgent advice: Call 111 or go to A&E if:
you or your child develop symptoms of malaria during or after a visit to an area where the disease is found, even if it has been several weeks, months or a year after you return from travelling.
You must tell the healthcare professional that you have been in a country with a risk of malaria, including any brief stopovers.
What causes malaria?
Malaria is caused by the Plasmodium parasite. The parasite is spread to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes.
There are 5 different types of Plasmodium parasite that cause malaria in humans. They are found in different parts of the world (but do overlap in certain areas) and vary in terms of how severe the infection can be.
All malaria infections cause the same symptoms and require immediate medical attention. It's not possible to find out which type of malaria you have from symptoms alone.
How malaria is spread
The Plasmodium parasite is spread by mosquitoes. These are known as 'night-biting' mosquitoes because they most commonly bite between sunset and sunrise.
When a mosquito bites a person already infected with malaria, it becomes infected and spreads the parasite to the next person it bites. Malaria can't be spread directly from person to person.
When an infected mosquito bites, the parasite enters the blood and travels to the liver. In the liver, it develops for days to weeks before re-entering the blood. This is the point where symptoms develop and urgent treatment is required.
Although it is very rare, malaria can also be spread from a person with the infection through blood transfusions and sharing needles.
Where is malaria found?
Malaria is found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It is not found in the UK or Europe.
The fitfortravel website has more information about the risk of malaria in individual countries.
Complications of malaria
Malaria is a serious illness that can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated quickly. Severe complications of malaria can occur within hours or days of the first symptoms. This means it is important to seek urgent medical help as soon as possible.
The destruction of red blood cells by the malaria parasite can cause severe anaemia.
Anaemia is a condition where the red blood cells are unable to carry enough oxygen to the body's muscles and organs. This can leave you feeling drowsy, weak and faint.
In rare cases, malaria can affect the brain. This is known as cerebral malaria which can cause your brain to swell, sometimes leading to permanent brain damage. It can also cause fits (seizures) or coma.
Other complications that can arise as a result of severe malaria include:
liver failure and jaundice – yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
shock – a sudden drop in blood pressure
pulmonary oedema – a build-up of fluid in the lungs
acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
abnormally low blood sugar – hypoglycaemia
swelling and rupturing of the spleen
Malaria in pregnancy
If you get malaria while pregnant, you and your baby have an increased risk of developing serious complications like:
premature birth – birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy
low birth weight
restricted growth of the baby in the womb
death of the mother
Pregnant women are advised to avoid travelling to regions with a risk of malaria.
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