Malaria is a tropical disease. It is spread by mosquitoes infected with malaria parasites. In this video, an expert explains how malaria attacks different areas of the body, and what you can do to avoid getting infected.

Media last reviewed: 31/01/2014

Next review due: 31/01/2016

Travel health

Advice for people travelling abroad, including malaria, travel vaccinations, EHIC, travel insurance, DVT and jet lag

Malaria is a serious tropical disease spread by mosquitoes. If malaria is not diagnosed and treated promptly, it can be fatal.

A single mosquito bite is all it takes for someone to become infected.

Symptoms of malaria

It is important to be aware of the symptoms of malaria if you are travelling to areas where there is a high malaria risk (see below). Symptoms include:

Symptoms usually appear between seven and 18 days after becoming infected, but in some cases the symptoms may not appear for up to a year, or occasionally even longer.

Read more about the symptoms of malaria.

When to seek medical attention

Seek medical help immediately if you develop symptoms of malaria during or after a visit to an area where the disease is found, even if it is several weeks, months or a year after you return from travelling.

If there is a possibility you have malaria, a blood test will be carried out to confirm whether or not you are infected.

You should receive the results of your blood test on the same day and, if you have malaria, treatment will be started straight away.

What causes malaria?

Malaria is caused by a type of parasite known as plasmodium. There are many different types of plasmodia parasites, but only five cause malaria in humans.

The plasmodium parasite is mainly spread by female Anopheles mosquitoes, which predominantly bite at night. When an infected mosquito bites a human, it passes the parasites into the bloodstream.

Malaria can also be spread through blood transfusions and the sharing of needles, but this is very rare.

Read more about the causes of malaria and how it is spread.

Malaria risk areas

Malaria is found in more than 100 countries, mainly in tropical regions of the world, including:

  • large areas of Africa and Asia
  • Central and South America
  • Haiti and the Dominican Republic
  • parts of the Middle East
  • some Pacific islands

The World Malaria Report, published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2013, states that in 2012 there were 207 million cases of malaria worldwide and 627,000 deaths.

Malaria is not found in the UK, although about 1,400 travellers were diagnosed with malaria after returning to the UK from the areas above in 2012. Two people died.

The Fit for Travel website has more information about the risk of malaria in specific countries.

Preventing malaria

Many cases of malaria can be avoided. An easy way to remember is the ABCD approach to prevention:

  • Awareness of risk – find out whether you're at risk of getting malaria before travelling.
  • Bite prevention – avoid mosquito bites by using insect repellent, covering your arms and legs and using an insecticide-treated mosquito net.
  • Check whether you need to take malaria prevention tablets – if you do, make sure you take the right antimalarial tablets at the right dose, and finish the course.
  • Diagnosis – seek immediate medical advice if you develop malaria symptoms, including up to a year after you return from travelling.

Speak to your GP if you are planning to visit an area where there is a malaria risk. It may be recommended that you take antimalarial tablets to prevent infection.

Read more about preventing malaria.

Treating malaria

If malaria is diagnosed and treated promptly, virtually everyone will make a full recovery. Treatment should be started as soon as the diagnosis has been confirmed.

Antimalarial medication is used both to treat and prevent malaria. Which type of medication is used and the length of treatment will depend on:

  • the type of malaria
  • the severity of your symptoms
  • where you caught malaria
  • whether you took an anti-malarial to prevent malaria 
  • whether you are pregnant

In some cases, you may be prescribed emergency standby treatment for malaria before you travel if there is a risk of you becoming infected with malaria while travelling in a remote area with little or no access to medical care

Read more about treating malaria.

Complications of malaria

Malaria is a serious illness that can get worse very quickly and can be fatal if not treated promptly.

It can also cause serious complications including:

  • severe anaemia – where red blood cells are unable to carry enough oxygen around the body, leading to drowsiness and weakness
  • cerebral malaria – in rare cases, the small blood vessels leading to the brain can become blocked, causing seizures, brain damage and coma

The effects of malaria are usually more severe in pregnant women, babies, young children and the elderly. Pregnant women in particular are usually advised not to travel to malaria risk areas.

Read more about the complications of malaria.

Page last reviewed: 09/01/2014

Next review due: 09/01/2016


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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Graceneary said on 13 March 2014

I've had malaria 3 times now because I often go Ghana in west Africa. The first time I had malaria I was get young and the doctor thought I could die because my immune system was not coping well, fortunately I did get better. I've had it twice since then and I still get the symptoms Everytime I'm infected however it's quite easier to get rid of since I have become more immune to it. My cousins In Africa said catching malaria is a normal thing for them.

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trentonuk said on 13 November 2013

I travelled in West Africa several times between 2008 - 2011 before spending two years teaching there from 2011 - 2013.
I've had pfalciparum malaria several times, needing hospital treatment on the first three occasions. each infection was less severe than the previous one and I was lucky to build up a resistance. I recognised sypmtoms and was eventually able to treat myself with over the counter medications, artemisine being the primary one.
malaria can give very confusing symptoms for example I had a cough which went on for months, which I put down to pollution / hot climate, dust, pollen and so on. When more symptoms appeared I got tested and treated.
The prophylactic medications will not prevent you contracting malaria. They will suppress the symptoms as a BBC journalist who did an expedition by canoe through the rainforest in Sierra Leone discovered. He nearly died. This was also my experience, the first trip I made to Ghana I took malarone and still contracted malaria, although the symptoms were simply diarroeah.
My strategy for preventing malaria is to keep away from areas high in mosquitoes, at night to burn coils or spray the bedroom with insecticide, use a net over the bed, keep covered up at night, especially feet. If I'm bitten, get tested at a clinic. It doesn't cost very much and if you get diagnosed early, malaria can often be treated with a short course of oral medications.
I take the risk of malaria so seriously that I would think very carefully before travelling to remote regions where you can't quickly get to a clinic. My experience of African hospitals is they're basic, but clean and professional.

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