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What is malaria?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Introduction

Malaria is a dangerous disease that is common in many parts of the world. If you are in one of those areas, you can get malaria from just one mosquito bite. It can make you very ill, or even kill you. But there are things you can do to avoid mosquito bites and good treatments are available to protect against the disease.

We've brought together the best research about malaria and weighed up the evidence about how to prevent it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

Malaria is a dangerous disease caused by a parasite (an organism that lives on another creature). This parasite lives in mosquitoes in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. You can catch it if you are bitten by an infected mosquito. The parasite can then invade and destroy the red cells in your blood.

The malaria parasite is small and is only one cell. It's called plasmodium. There are four different kinds of plasmodium that cause malaria. They are called: [1]

  • Plasmodium falciparum

  • Plasmodium vivax

  • Plasmodium ovale

  • Plasmodium malariae.

Plasmodium falciparum causes the most severe sort of malaria.

malaria-prevention_default.jpgYou can get malaria if you are bitten by a mosquito that is infected with any of the plasmodium parasites. [2] Some people are more likely than others to be bitten: [3] [4]

  • Large people are bitten more often than small people

  • Adults are bitten more often than children

  • Women get more mosquito bites than men.

Some mosquitoes, especially in Africa, like to bite around your ankles. Most bite in the evening and at night. [5] But some will bite during the day if they are very hungry. [6]

Malaria can give you symptoms similar to the flu (influenza). The most common symptom is a fever. [7] [8] The most severe sort of malaria can cause your organs to stop working and your blood to stop circulating properly. This could kill you. But good treatments are available. People rarely die from malaria in countries like the UK and the United States, where good medical treatment is available. [9]

Malaria is common in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America where the temperature is between 25°C (77°F) and 30°C (86°F) and the weather is humid. [10] You don't usually find malaria where the temperature is below 16°C (61°F) or above 36°C (97°F), or at altitudes higher than 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). [11] Mosquitoes mostly breed in small pools of fresh water exposed to sunlight. [12]

Your chances of getting malaria depend on where you go, how long you stay there, and what you do.

  • If you spend more than three weeks in an area where malaria is common, you have twice the risk of getting malaria than if you stayed for a shorter time. [13]

  • If you go on your own, you are nine times more likely to get malaria than if you go on a package tour. [14]

  • You are much more likely to get malaria in Africa than in Asia or South America. [15] [16]

Glossary

fever

If you have a fever, your body temperature is above 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit). With a fever you often get other symptoms, such as shivering, headache or sweating. A fever is usually caused by an infection.

For more terms related to Malaria prevention

Citations

For references related to Malaria prevention click here.
Last Updated: June 07, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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