Malaria – Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

What is Malaria?

Malaria is a life-threatening infectious disease affecting humans and other animals. Mosquitoes are the bearers of the malaria-causing parasite – Plasmodium. When a mosquito carrying this parasite, it enters the body and starts infecting the red blood cells.

Once the parasite is inside the body, it travels to the liver, where it gets mature after an incubation period of up to several days. The adult parasite enters the bloodstream and starts attacking the rood blood cells.

In 48 to 72 hours, the parasite infecting the red blood cells multiply, resulting in an explosion of the infected cells. The parasite continues to infect red blood cells, leading to symptoms occurring in cycles that last two or three days.

Malaria-causing bacteria typically are abundant in tropical and subtropical climates where it can live and thrive. According to the WHO, in 2016 alone, there were about 216 million malaria cases in 91 countries.

In the United States, the CDC (centers for disease control and prevention) reports about 1,700 annual malaria cases. Most cases arise in people who caught the malaria parasite while traveling to countries where malaria infection is prevalent.

What Causes Malaria?

Malaria is a condition resulting from getting infected with a single-celled microorganism of the Plasmodium group. Infected female Anopheles mosquito is the primary spreader of this disease.

If an infected mosquito bites you, you will develop malaria symptoms in a few days. Four types of parasites can cause malaria; these include:

  • Plasmodium vivax
  • P. Ovale
  • P. Malariae
  • P. falciparum

Falciparum is the malaria parasite that causes the most severe form of this disease. People who get infected with this parasite are at the highest risk of death.

If a woman infected with malaria gives birth, their newborn can get the disease at birth; this condition is called congenital malaria.

Malaria parasite resides in blood, so a person can also get infected through:

  • A transfusion
  • An organ transplant
  • Sharing needles or syringes

Risk Factors

The most significant factor contributing to malaria development is to live in or visit a region where this disease is prevalent. While many parasites can cause malaria, the variety that causes the most severe complications is typically present in:

  • African countries, located south of the Sahara Desert
  • The Asian subcontinent
  • New Guinea, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Malaria?

Malaria signs and symptoms typically start to appear in 8-25 days following infection. In a few instances, symptoms might not develop for severe months because some parasites can enter the body and remain dormant for a prolonged time.

Common malaria symptoms include:

  • Bloody stools
  • Coma
  • Convulsions
  • Muscle pain
  • Anemia
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pina
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Increased sweating
  • High fever
  • Shaking and chills

Malaria’s most prevalent symptom is paroxysm – it is a cyclical occurrence of immediate coldness followed by shivering, fever, and sweating. This cycle repeats every two days when a person has P Ovale or P Vivax infection and every three days for P Malaria infection. The P falciparum infection can cause the cyclical event to reoccur every 36-48 hours.

P falciparum-caused malaria can cause symptoms that last for 9 to 30 days after the infection.

People who get cerebral malaria can exhibit neurological symptoms, including:

  • Abnormal posturing
  • Nystagmus
  • Failure of the eyes to turn in sync simultaneously
  • Opisthotonos
  • Seizures
  • Coma

How Doctors Diagnose Malaria?

If you get symptoms of malaria, your doctor can diagnose it. When you visit your doctor concerning malaria symptoms, they will review your health history and ask you about any recent travel to the tropical climate. They will also perform a physical examination.

A doctor can determine whether their patient has an enlarged liver or spleen. The doctor might order additional blood tests to confirm if a person exhibiting the symptoms has malaria or any other disease.

The malaria blood test will show the following:

  • Whether a person has malaria
  • If yes, then what type of malaria, they have
  • Whether the parasite causing malaria is resistant to specific mediations
  • If malaria is causing anemia
  • If malaria parasite has affected the patient’s vital organs

Malaria Complications

Malaria can cause several severe complications. The most concerning, among these complications is respiratory distress, which occurs in about 24% of adults and 40% of children infected with P falciparum malaria (the most severe kind).

Apart from respiratory distress, malaria can also result in various other complications, including:

  • Low blood sugar
  • Organ failure – liver, kidney, or spleen
  • Anemia – due to the destruction of red blood cells
  • Cerebral malaria – Swelling of the brain’s blood vessels
  • Pulmonary edema – breathing problems resulting from an accumulation of fluids in the lungs

What Treatments Are Available For Malaria?

Malaria is a life-threatening disease, especially if you get infected with the P falciparum parasite. Healthcare providers typically treat this disease in a hospital. Doctors prescribe medicines based on which variety of parasites that the patient has got.

In some cases, when the parasite causing malaria is resistant to the anti-malaria medication, the drug will not clear the infection. In such a situation, the doctor will recommend more than one medicine or change the meds altogether.

Most anti-malaria medications work to clear the infection from the bloodstream, which is fine in most cases. However, malaria parasites like P Vivax and P Ovale have a liver-stage. During this stage, the parasite can remain inactive and survive in the body for an extended period to reactivate later, causing a relapse.

People with P Vivax or P Ovale infection require an additional anti-malaria medicine dose to prevent a relapse in the future.

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