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Table of contents
OverviewUnderstanding Malaria: Causes and transmissionMalaria symptomsRecognizing MalariaDiagnosing MalariaMalaria prevention: Strategies and interventionsMalaria treatmentGlobal burden of Malaria: Statistics and impactMalaria researchConclusionSources
Navin Khosla NowPatientGreen tick
Medically reviewed by Navin Khosla, BPharm and written by Rajive Patel, BPharm - Updated on 25 Jan 2024
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Malaria is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease caused by a parasite transmitted through the bites of infected mosquitoes. It is prevalent in tropical and subtropical regions, with a higher risk of outbreaks in countries like those in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and parts of Central and South America, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Oceania. While malaria is rare in the U.K., United States and Europe, it is still important to be aware of the risks to public health and understand what happens if you contract this disease.

In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the various aspects of malaria, including its causes, symptoms, prevention strategies, and available treatments. By understanding the nature of this disease and adopting preventive measures, we can work towards reducing its impact and improving global health outcomes.

Understanding Malaria: Causes and transmission

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites, with five species known to infect humans – Plasmodium falciparum (also known as P. falciparum or falciparum malaria), P. vivax (Plasmodium vivax), P. ovale, P. malariae, and P. knowlesi. These parasites are primarily transmitted through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. These mosquitoes serve as the vector for the disease, as they acquire the parasite when feeding on an infected individual and subsequently transmit it to others.

The transmission cycle of malaria begins when an infected mosquito bites a person, injecting the malaria parasites into their bloodstream. From there, the parasites travel to the liver, where they mature and multiply. After leaving the liver, they infect red blood cells, leading to the onset of symptoms.

It’s important to note that malaria is not contagious and cannot be transmitted directly from person to person. However, there are other modes of transmission, such as through blood transfusions or sharing of contaminated needles.

Malaria symptoms

Malaria symptoms typically appear within 10-15 days after the mosquito bite and can vary in severity. The symptoms of malaria can vary depending on the species of Plasmodium involved and the individual’s immune response. Common symptoms include fever, chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, muscle or joint pain, fatigue, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, and cough. Malaria can progress to severe illness, leading to complications such as organ failure, cerebral malaria, seizures, and even malaria deaths, particularly if left untreated.

In some cases, individuals may experience cycles of “malaria attacks,” characterized by shivering and chills, followed by a high fever and sweating. These cycles typically occur every 48 to 72 hours, depending on the species of Plasmodium.

It’s crucial to seek medical attention if you experience a fever while living in or after traveling to a high-risk malaria region. Severe symptoms, such as impaired consciousness, convulsions, difficulty breathing, and abnormal bleeding, require immediate emergency care.

Recognizing Malaria

Early symptoms of malaria are often nonspecific and can resemble flu-like illnesses. It is essential to recognize the signs of malaria and seek medical attention promptly if you suspect an infection. The most common symptoms include:

  • Fever: Malaria typically presents with recurring episodes of fever, often accompanied by chills. The fever may spike to high temperatures and is often followed by profuse sweating
  • Headache: Persistent headaches are a common symptom of malaria, often accompanied by feelings of fatigue and general malaise
  • Muscular pain: Malaria can cause generalized body aches and muscle pain, which can be particularly pronounced in the back and abdomen
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may occur in some cases of malaria infection
  • Anemia: Malaria can lead to a decrease in red blood cells, resulting in anemia. This can cause weakness, fatigue, and pale skin
  • Jaundice: In severe cases, malaria can affect the liver and lead to yellowing of the skin and eyes, known as jaundice

It is important to note that symptoms can vary depending on the type of malaria parasite involved and the individual’s immune response. Some individuals may experience more severe symptoms, especially those with weakened immune systems, young children, and pregnant women.

Diagnosing Malaria

If you suspect you have malaria, it is crucial to seek medical attention promptly. A healthcare provider will evaluate your symptoms, medical history, and travel history to determine the likelihood of a malaria infection. Laboratory tests are essential for confirming the diagnosis and identifying the specific malaria parasite involved.

The most common diagnostic method is a blood test, which involves examining a blood sample under a microscope to detect the presence of malaria parasites. Rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) are also available and provide quick results. These tests detect specific proteins produced by the malaria parasites, allowing for rapid identification.

Malaria prevention: Strategies and interventions

Preventing malaria is crucial, especially for individuals residing in or traveling to areas with a high risk of transmission. Implementing preventive measures can significantly reduce the chances of contracting the disease. Preventing malaria requires a multipronged approach that includes both individual and community-level interventions. The primary goal is to reduce exposure to mosquito bites and eliminate the breeding grounds of mosquitoes. Here are some key prevention strategies:

Use mosquito repellents

Applying insect repellents to exposed skin and clothing is an effective way to repel mosquitoes. Look for repellents containing active ingredients such as DEET, Picaridin, or IR3535. These repellents should be applied according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and care should be taken when applying them to children.

Sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets

Insecticide-treated bed nets provide an additional barrier against mosquito bites while sleeping. Using mosquito nets can significantly reduce the risk of malaria infection, particularly in high-risk areas. These nets are specially treated with insecticides that repel or kill mosquitoes. They provide a physical barrier between individuals and mosquitoes, reducing the risk of bites and subsequent infection.

It is recommended to sleep under an insecticide-treated net every night, especially in areas where malaria transmission is high. Proper usage and maintenance of ITNs are essential to ensure their effectiveness.

Wear protective clothing

When spending time outdoors, especially during peak mosquito activity times, it is advisable to wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and closed-toe shoes. This can help minimize exposed skin and reduce the risk of mosquito bites.

Indoor residual spraying (IRS)

Indoor residual spraying involves the application of insecticides to the interior walls and ceilings of houses. This intervention helps kill mosquitoes that come into contact with the treated surfaces, reducing the overall mosquito population and malaria transmission.

IRS is particularly effective in areas with high mosquito densities and in regions where mosquitoes rest indoors after feeding. It is typically carried out by trained professionals using approved insecticides.

Chemoprophylaxis for travelers

Travelers visiting areas with a high risk of malaria can take preventive medicines, known as chemoprophylaxis, to reduce their chances of infection. These medications are prescribed by healthcare providers, who can provide guidance on appropriate antimalarial medications for preventive use. Different medications may be recommended depending on the destination and individual factors such as age, pregnancy, and medical history.

Chemoprophylaxis should be started before travel to a malaria-endemic area and continued for a specific period after returning, as recommended by healthcare professionals. It is essential to adhere to the prescribed regimen and complete the full course of medication.

Malaria vaccination

Vaccination plays a crucial role in preventing and controlling infectious diseases, including malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended the use of a malaria vaccine known as RTS,S/AS01 in areas with moderate to high malaria transmission. This vaccine has shown promising results in reducing severe malaria among young children.

Vaccination campaigns targeting high-risk populations, especially children in endemic regions, are essential for achieving significant reductions in malaria transmission and disease burden.

Eliminate mosquito breeding sites

Environmental management involves implementing measures to reduce mosquito breeding sites and minimize mosquito-human contact. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water, so it is essential to eliminate potential breeding sites around your home. Regularly empty and clean containers that collect water, such as flower pots, buckets, and birdbaths. Additionally, ensure proper drainage of stagnant water in your surroundings. Proper sanitation and waste management practices also contribute to mosquito control.

Community engagement and education are vital components of environmental management, as they promote awareness and active participation in mosquito control efforts.

Remember, if you suspect you have malaria or have been in an area with a high risk of transmission, seek medical attention promptly. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to a successful recovery and minimizing the potential complications associated with malaria.

By taking proactive measures to prevent mosquito bites and staying informed about the risks and symptoms of malaria, you can protect yourself and your community from this potentially life-threatening disease.

Malaria treatment

Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are critical in preventing severe complications and reducing malaria-related deaths. Diagnostic methods for malaria include microscopy, rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs), and molecular tests. Microscopy involves examining blood samples under a microscope to identify the presence of malaria parasites. RDTs are rapid tests that detect specific antigens produced by the parasites. Molecular tests, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), provide more accurate and detailed information about the malaria species present.

Malaria is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment to prevent complications and potential fatalities. Malaria can be treated with antimalarial medications. The choice of treatment of Malaria depends on the species of Plasmodium involved, the patient’s age and medical history and the severity of the infection.

Antimalarial medications are used to treat malaria and can be administered orally, intravenously, or through injections. The specific medications prescribed will vary, but common antimalarial drugs include artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) and chloroquine. Artemisinin-based drugs are particularly effective against the most dangerous malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. Examples include artemether-lumefantrine and artesunate-mefloquine. Other antimalarial drugs include atovaquone-proguanil, quinine sulfate with doxycycline, and primaquine phosphate.

In severe cases of malaria, hospitalization may be necessary to provide more intensive care and monitoring. Supportive treatments, such as intravenous fluids, blood transfusions, and medications to control fever and other symptoms, may also be administered as part of the treatment plan. It is essential to follow the prescribed treatment regimen and complete the full course of medication to ensure a complete recovery and prevent the development of drug resistance.

Global burden of Malaria: Statistics and impact

Malaria continues to pose a significant global health burden, particularly in regions like sub-Saharan Africa. According to the most recent World malaria report, there were approximately 249 million malaria cases and 608,000 malaria-related deaths in 2022. The majority of these cases and deaths occurred in the WHO African Region, with children under 5 years of age being the most vulnerable population.

Efforts to combat malaria have made progress, but much work remains to be done. Inadequate access to preventive measures, medical care, and information exacerbates the problem in many high-risk areas. It is crucial to address these barriers and implement comprehensive strategies to reduce the transmission and impact of malaria.

Increasing awareness about malaria is crucial for prevention, early detection, and effective management of the disease. Educating communities, healthcare providers, and travelers about malaria risks, symptoms, and preventive measures can play a significant role in reducing the burden of this infectious disease.

Malaria research

Intensive research efforts are ongoing to develop new tools, strategies, and interventions for malaria control and elimination. Collaborative initiatives between governments, international organizations, researchers, and communities play a crucial role in advancing these efforts.

The World Health Organization (WHO) leads global efforts to combat malaria through its Global Malaria Program. This program focuses on providing technical guidance, facilitating access to essential interventions, supporting surveillance and monitoring systems, and promoting research and innovation.

Furthermore, ongoing research and development efforts are focused on new malaria vaccines and innovative strategies to combat the disease. Various research institutions and organizations are actively involved in malaria research, including the development of new antimalarial drugs, vaccines, vector control methods, and diagnostic tools. Continued investment in malaria control programs, improved access to healthcare, and environmental management are vital for achieving significant reductions in malaria cases globally.


Malaria remains a significant global health challenge, particularly in regions with high transmission rates. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and prevention strategies associated with this disease, we can work towards reducing its impact and improving health outcomes for affected populations. Implementing comprehensive prevention measures, ensuring access to timely diagnosis and treatment, and supporting ongoing research efforts are crucial steps towards malaria control and elimination. Together, we can strive for a future where malaria is no longer a threat to global health.


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