Malaria is a serious infection caused by a parasite. The parasite in question belongs to the Plasmodium group, which has several types. The course of the disease and its prevention/treatment may differ depending on the type of parasite involved.
Malaria is found in many areas across the globe including Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe, the South Pacific, and Oceania.
The parasite that causes malaria is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito that is most active between sunset and sunrise.
Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of contracting malaria. For example, if you travel:
- To areas affected by the disease
- For prolonged periods
- To rural or remote areas
- During or right after the rainy season
In rare cases, transmission can also occur through blood transfusions, needle sharing, or from mother to fetus.
Generally speaking, the symptoms of malaria are similar to those of the flu, and may also include:
- High fever
- Chills, excessive sweating
- Nausea, vomiting
- Headache, dizziness
- Muscle and joint pain
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
- Increased heart rate or shortness of breath
Symptoms can last several hours, alternating with symptom-free periods. If the initial infection is not treated and, depending on the parasite involved, the disease may recur. Symptoms usually appear within 1 to 4 weeks of the mosquito bite but, in some cases, may only occur up to a year after the bite.
Left untreated, malaria can progress to severe illness and can lead to complications that may include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Kidney failure
Malaria can also be fatal if not treated urgently and aggressively.
Women who are pregnant, young children and people with weakened immune system are more at risk for developing severe symptoms and complications.
Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent this disease. However, those traveling to areas where malaria is present can take preventive medication. There is a range of medications available. Your healthcare professional will prescribe medication that is best suited for your destination, since some strains of the disease are resistant to certain drugs. For the medication to be as effective as possible, it is important to take it before, during and after your stay, as indicated on your prescription.
Since preventive medication does not provide full protection against malaria, it is recommended that certain measures be taken to limit the risk of being bitten by an infected mosquito. Ask your pharmacist how to prevent mosquito bites.
Antimalarial medications are used both to prevent and to treat malaria. The choice of medications depends on several factors:
- The symptoms observed
- The type of parasite responsible for the infection
- The likelihood that the parasite is resistant to certain drugs
When diagnosed early, the disease is usually quite treatable.
When should I see a healthcare professional?
Consult with a healthcare provider quickly if you have any of the following symptoms within one year of your return:
- Fever and/or
- Flu-like symptoms