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Malaria - Complications of malaria

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Malaria is a very serious illness which can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated quickly.

The falciparum parasite causes the most severe malaria symptoms and most deaths.


The destruction of red blood cells by the malaria parasite can cause severe anaemia.

Anaemia is a condition where the red blood cells are unable to carry enough oxygen to the body's muscles and organs, leaving you feeling drowsy, weak and faint.

Cerebral malaria

Some rare cases of malaria can affect the brain. This is known as cerebral malaria and it can cause your brain to swell, sometimes leading to permanent brain damage. It can also cause seizures (fits) or coma (a state of unconsciousness).

Other complications

Other complications that can arise due to severe malaria include:

  • breathing problems, such as fluid in your lungs
  • liver failure and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • shock (a sudden drop in blood flow)
  • spontaneous bleeding
  • abnormally low blood sugar
  • kidney failure
  • swelling and rupturing of the spleen
  • dehydration (a lack of water in the body) 

As complications of severe malaria can occur within hours or days of the first symptoms, it is important to seek urgent medical help as soon as possible.

The effects of malaria are usually more severe in pregnant women, babies, young children and the elderly.

Medical Review: March 13, 2012
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