Malaria: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Complications, Treatment, and Prevention

Malaria is a life-threatening mosquito-borne blood disease caused by a Plasmodium parasite. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of the female Anopheles mosquito.

October 9, 2017

Malaria is a life-threatening mosquito-borne blood disease caused by a Plasmodium parasite. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of the female Anopheles mosquito.

Causes of Malaria:

Plasmodium parasites that causes malaria is usually found in tropical and subtropical climates. When the infected mosquitoes carrying these parasite bites you, the parasite is released into your bloodstream. Once the parasites enters your body, they travel to the liver, where they mature and reproduce. The mature parasites enter the bloodstream and begin to infect red blood cells after few days. Within 48 to 72 hours, the parasites inside the red blood cells multiply, causing the infected cells to burst open. Some malaria parasites remain in the liver and are not released until later, resulting in recurrence of malaria. When an unaffected mosquito feeds on an infected individual, it becomes infected. This restarts the cycle.
Five species of Plasmodium can infect and be spread by humans.
Congenital malaria occurs when a mother with malaria passes on the disease to her baby at birth. Malaria is transmitted by blood, so it can also be transmitted through:

  • a transfusion
  • an organ transplant
  • use of shared needles or syringes

Symptoms of Malaria:

Usually the symptoms of malaria develop within 10 days to 4 weeks following the infection. Some malarial parasites can enter the body but will be dormant for long periods of time. Hence the symptoms may not develop for several months in some cases.
Common symptoms of malaria include:

  • high fever
  • shaking chills that can range from moderate to severe
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sweating
  • diarrhea
  • bloody stools
  • abdominal pain
  • muscle pain
  • anemia
  • coma
  • convulsions

In severe malaria, signs and symptoms of vital organ dysfunction is shown.
Symptoms of severe malaria include:

  •     fever and chills
  •     deep breathing and respiratory distress
  •     impaired consciousness
  •     multiple convulsions
  •     abnormal bleeding and signs of anemia
  •     clinical jaundice and evidence of vital organ dysfunction
  •     prostration, or adopting a prone position

Severe malaria can be fatal without treatment.

Diagnosis of Malaria:

A physical exam will be performed to determine if you have an enlarged spleen or liver. Any recent travel to tropical climates should also be known to the doctor who examins you.
Confirmation of the plasmodium parasite can be done through microscopic laboratory testing or by a rapid diagnostic test (RDT). When you have symptoms of malaria, it is strongly advisable to do a parasitological test for identifying and managing the disease.
Some additional blood tests will also help you determine:

  • any resistant to certain types of drugs
  • if the disease has caused anemia
  • if the disease has affected your vital organs

Complications of Malaria:

Malaria can cause a number of life-threatening complications which include:

  • Kidneys, liver, or spleen failure
  • Anemia due to the destruction of red blood cells
  • Cerebral malaria or swelling of the blood vessels of the brain
  • Pulmonary edema, that causes breathing problems due to accumulation of fluid in the lungs
  • Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar

Treatment of Malaria:

Treatment of Malaria aims to eliminate the Plasmodium parasite from the bloodstream. Treatment can be done for infection to reduce the risk of disease transmission in the surrounding population for the people who does not have any symptoms of malaria.
To treat uncomplicated malaria, Artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) is recommended. ACT has the ability to rapidly reduce the concentration of Plasmodium parasites in the bloodstream.
If the disease is becoming resistant to the effects of ACT, it can be combined with a partner drug. The role of artemisinin is to reduce the number of parasites within the first 3 days of infection, while the partner drugs eliminate the rest.


At present there is no licensed vaccine in the U.S. But there is one vaccine licensed for use in Europe.

Prevention of Malaria:

If you are traveling to an area where malaria is common, you may be prescribed  antimalarial medications to prevent the disease. These medications should be taken before, during and after your trip.
If you live in such an area where malaria is common, you should take long-term prevention.
Sleeping under a mosquito net may help prevent being bitten by an infected mosquito. Covering your skin or using bug sprays containing DEET may also help prevent infection.