Mosquito sitting on someone's arm


Malaria symptoms, treatment, hot spots and prevention.

Malaria is a potentially fatal blood disease caused by parasites transmitted from person to person by mosquitoes. Although the disease can be controlled and treated when diagnosed early, this is often not possible in many third-world countries with limited medical care.

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2015 there were 214 million clinical cases of malaria worldwide, and 438,000 people died from the disease. If you’re planning an overseas trip, it’s essential to be aware of how malaria is transmitted, the symptoms it produces and how you can protect yourself.

What is malaria?

Malaria is a serious and potentially fatal disease of the blood caused by the Plasmodium parasite. Transmitted through bites from infected mosquitoes, malaria occurs mostly in poor tropical and subtropical areas of the world.

There are more than 100 species of malaria parasite, the most deadly of which is known as Plasmodium falciparum. The parasite lodges itself in the liver and then multiplies thousands of times, before entering the bloodstream and infecting red blood cells. It causes flu-like symptoms such as sensations of cold, sweating, fever, headaches and vomiting.

If left untreated, a malaria infection can progress to anaemia, hypoglycemia or cerebral malaria, which blocks the capillaries that carry blood to the brain. Severe infections can lead to death.

Due to the fact that malaria is such a deadly disease and 91 countries around the world have ongoing malaria transmission, the World Health Organization has set a goal to reduce all malaria cases and deaths by 90% before 2030.

How do people get malaria?

The female Anopheles species of mosquito is the only mosquito that transmits malaria to humans. A bite from an infected mosquito is all it takes to cause malaria infection. The female Anopheles mosquito primarily bites between the hours of dusk and dawn.

It’s also important to point out that the development and growth of the parasite inside the mosquito is dependent on a range of factors, the most critical of which are high humidity and ambient temperatures.

Plasmodium falciparum, the type of malaria that most often causes severe and life-threatening health complications, is very common in African countries to the south of the Sahara Desert. With little access to health care in many of these areas, an estimated 90% of malaria deaths occur in Africa south of the Sahara Desert, with the majority of these deaths occurring in young children.

What are the signs and symptoms of malaria?

Malaria can produce a wide range of signs and symptoms in infected patients, including:

  • Fever. This may come and go in cycles, or be constant.
  • Chills and shivering
  • Profuse sweating
  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Seizures (more likely to occur in young children)
  • Diarrhoea and abdominal pain
  • Cough
  • Anaemia and jaundice

Symptoms generally begin anywhere between 10 days and four weeks after infection, but in some cases symptoms can appear in as little as seven days.

Incubation period

The incubation period is the time between becoming infected with malaria and when symptoms appear. The table below shows how the incubation period varies between different Plasmodium parasites.

ParasiteIncubation period (approx.)
Plasmodium falciparum9 to 14 days
Plasmodium vivax12 to 18 days (some strains have an incubation period of 8 to 10 months or potentially longer)
Plasmodium ovale12 to 18 days
Plasmodium malariae18 to 40 days
Plasmodium knowlesi9 to 12 days

Who is most at risk?

Malaria occurs in many of the world’s tropical and subtropical areas, including:

  • Africa
  • Central and South America
  • Asia, including Southeast Asia
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Western Pacific Islands

People living in these countries are most at risk of malaria – in particular, people living in poor countries where access to medical care is limited, and pregnant women and young children who have little or no immunity to the disease.

Travellers to these regions also face a higher risk of infection if they have come from an area where malaria is not present. No previous exposure to malaria means they have no resistance to the disease and can be particularly susceptible.

Is there a vaccine?

Research is currently being carried out by medical experts around the globe to develop a vaccine for malaria. At the time of writing there was no vaccine available, but a European-developed vaccine was reportedly close to being licensed for use.

In the meantime, travellers visiting a country where there is a malaria risk should consult their doctor well in advance of departure. Your doctor will be able to prescribe antimalarial drugs to protect you against the disease – there are many different drugs available, so it’s essential to seek medical advice so that you can be sure the drugs you are prescribed will work in the region of the world you plan to visit.

Staying safe while travelling

There are plenty of preventative measures you can take to protect yourself against malaria while travelling. These include:

  • Avoiding the disease. The simplest way to avoid malaria is to avoid travelling to the countries and regions where the disease is most prevalent. However, this may not be an option for many travellers.
  • Seeing a travel medicine expert. Visit your doctor or travel medicine expert and get a prescription for antimalarial drugs. Your doctor will know the right medications to prescribe for different parts of the world, and be sure you take the medications as directed in order to ensure maximum protection.
  • Protect yourself from mosquitoes. As the female Anopheles mosquito is most active between dusk and dawn, sleeping under a secure mosquito net treated with insecticide is an excellent idea. You should shut windows to keep mozzies out, keep the air-conditioning running and never stay outside at night for too long. Wearing long sleeves and long trousers and regularly applying insect repellent will also help. You can find plenty more useful tips on how to protect yourself from mosquitoes at your nearest travel medical centre.
  • Use insect repellent. Not only should you make sure you have ample insect repellent packed for your trip, but you should also be ready to start using it as soon as you step off the plane. Remember to pack some in your carry-on luggage for easy access and apply it to all exposed parts of your body.
  • Seek medical attention. The unfortunate truth is that no preventative measures are completely effective against malaria. So if you’re travelling in (or have recently returned from) a country where malaria occurs, seek immediate medical attention if you develop a fever.
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment is not an endorsement and does not imply its appropriateness for your circumstances. Our information is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional and you should not rely on this general information for diagnosis or answers for your particular circumstances. Instead seek advice from a registered health care professional. This content has been prepared for Australian audiences and was accurate at the time of publication but, over time, the currency and completeness of the published material may change.

Picture: Shutterstock

Tim Falk

A freelance writer with a passion for the written word, Tim loves helping Australians find the right home loans and savings accounts. When he's not chained to a computer, Tim can usually be found exploring the great outdoors.

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