Malaria: causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention

Malaria is a disease caused by the bite of a species of mosquito (known as the Anopheles), which has been infected by parasites that carry the infection. These parasites that are responsible for spreading the life-threatening disease belong to the Plasmodium genus. An Anopheles mosquito carrying the malaria parasite bites an uninfected person transferring the parasite in the body, which then releases into the bloodstream of the person, and travels to the liver where it stays until it matures. Upon maturity, these parasites re-enter the bloodstream and start attacking the red blood cells, causing them to burst; the infection takes about 40-72 hours to spread. When an uninfected mosquito bites a malaria-infected person, it becomes the carrier of the parasite which is spread to every person the infected mosquito further bites.

Malaria is a very common and widespread disease with no particular preventive vaccination yet though it can be barred and easily cured if detected timely. As of today, there are more than 200 million cases of malaria reported each year worldwide and the number is only increasing per year. Hence, awareness about the causes of malaria, its symptoms, treatment, and preventive measures is very critical to safeguard precious lives.

Causes of Malaria

The major cause of malaria is the bite of an Anopheles mosquito carrying any of the four Plasmodium parasites including Plasmodium vivax, P.ovale, P.malariae, or P.falciparum; P.falciparum being one of the deadliest parasites which have the highest chances of death unless treated properly.

Further, in some cases, malaria infection could also be acquired. These cases include, but are not limited to:

  • An organ transplant
  • Blood transfusion
  • Use of shared needles or syringes
  • Genetically passed on by the mother to the child upon birth 

Symptoms of Malaria

Malaria can be life-threatening if proper medical treatment is not received on time. To get proper medical treatment, it is important to diagnose malaria based on its symptoms and then get it accredited by proper tests including blood tests that will clarify:

  • The type of parasite causing the infection
  • The spread of the infection (to vital organs)
  • The infection resulting in anaemia

A person suffering from malaria will also have an enlarged spleen or liver. That said, some of the common symptoms that indicate a malaria infection include:

  • Severe chills and shivering
  • High fever
  • Sweating
  • Severe headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Anaemia
  • Muscle pain
  • Coma
  • Bloody stool
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic cough

While the symptoms are commonly observed in people suffering from malaria, but there might be cases where the person may be infected but shows no symptoms of malaria. This happens when the parasite causing the infection, lies dormant in the liver. On a general level, the symptoms of malaria tend to show within 10 to 30 days post the bite of the mosquito and the spread of the infection.

 Treatment of Malaria

Though, life-threatening, malaria can be easily treated provided it is detected on time and proper medical attention is received. Severe cases of malaria especially when the parasite concerned is P.falciparum, immediate medical help is needed or malaria can cause severe complications including:

  • Cerebral malaria
  • Breathing problem
  • Organ failure
  • Anaemia
  • Low Glucose level

However, such cases are rare and the right medications can easily control the infection. As per WHO standards, the best existing treatment for malaria is artemisnin-based combination therapy (ACT) that works effectively to kill the parasites in the bloodstream. ACT is prescribed along with a partner drug, which enhances the process. Moreover, cases where the parasites become resistant to the ACT treatment, the partner drug helps to combat the infection. Apart from ACT other medications that are used to treat malaria include (but are not limited to):

  • Chloroquine
  • Doxycycline
  • Quinine
  • Mefloquine
  • Malarone
  • Artemether
  • Primaquine Phosphate

That said, the treatment course for a patient depends on the type of parasite and the severity of the symptoms. Also, the infection can relapse in a patient even after being treated or becoming symptom-free because the parasites might lie dormant and reactivate after some time.  

Prevention of Malaria

Currently, there is no preventive vaccine or medication for malaria. Thus, it is advisable to stay away from mosquito bites since that is the prime cause of malaria. You can use some of the following methods to stay clear of mosquito bites:

  • Wear light-colour clothes that cover your skin completely
  • Tuck in your clothes, as well as tuck you lower into your socks
  • Wear covered shoes
  • Avoid going outdoors, especially during early morning and evening
  • Use air conditioners
  • Use and carry mosquito repellents
  • Use DEET sprays
  • Avoid places full of filth and more prone to mosquitoes
  • Sleep under mosquito nets

Further, always check with your doctor before travelling to any area that has a high malaria case rate. Moreover, even on a general vacation, check the destination for malaria spread before planning your vacation. Alternatively, you can ask your doctor for some medications to prevent malaria; however, as of today, preventive medications and treatment medications are all the same.

In all, staying aware, informed and following preventive measures is the best way to be safe from this life-threatening disease.