Malaria: Symptoms and causes

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The signs and symptoms of malaria can rapidly develop within 7 days after bitten by an infected mosquito. In most cases, the time between being infected and when the symptoms start is 7-18 days depending on the specific parasite the individual is infected with. Nevertheless, some can take up to a year for the symptoms to manifest.

The initial symptoms of malaria are similar to the flu including headache, fever, chills, sweating and vomiting. These symptoms are often mild and can be difficult to distinguish as malaria. In some types of malaria, the fever occurs in 4-8 hour cycles. During these cycles, the individual feels cold at first with shivering that can last up to an hour. This is followed by a fever that lasts for 2-6 hours along with severe sweating. Other symptoms that can occur include diarrhea, muscle pain and general feeling of being sick.

If the individual is infected with the most serious type of malaria due to plasmodium falciparum parasite, there is a risk that the individual will quickly end up with severe and life-threatening complications such as organ failure and breathing problems if not treated promptly.

When to seek further care

It is vital to seek medical care if the individual develops symptoms of malaria during or after a visit to a high-risk area where the disease is prevalent even if it is several weeks, months or a year after the trip.

The initial symptoms of malaria are similar to the flu including headache, fever, chills, sweating and vomiting.

Potential causes of malaria

Malaria is caused by the plasmodium parasite that can spread to humans through mosquito bites. There are various types of plasmodium, but only 5 types are capable of causing malaria in humans.

  • Plasmodium falciparum is the most common form of malaria parasite and responsible for most deaths globally
  • Plasmodium vivax causes milder symptoms but can remain in the liver for up to 3 years that can cause relapses
  • Plasmodium ovale is considered uncommon that can stay in the liver for several years without any symptoms
  • Plasmodium malariae and knowlesi are quite rare

How malaria spreads

It is important to note that the plasmodium parasite is spread by the female Anopheles mosquitoes that are known as night-biting mosquitoes since they typically bite between dusk and dawn.

Once a mosquito bites an individual who is already infected with malaria, it also becomes infected and spreads the parasite to others. Nevertheless, malaria cannot spread directly from one person to another. When an individual is bitten, the parasite enters the bloodstream and travels to the liver.

The infection develops in the liver before re-entering the bloodstream and invading the red blood cells. The parasites multiply the red blood cells and these burst at regular intervals to release more parasites into the blood. The infected blood cells typically burst every 48-72 hours. Once they burst, the individual experiences an episode of fever, sweating and chills.

In some cases, malaria can also spread via blood transfusions and sharing of needles, but this is considered rare.


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