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Malaria — Symptoms, causes, treatment, prevention and diet

Malaria

Overview

Malaria is a vector-borne disease that spreads through Anopheles mosquitoes. It may seem like a simple fever but if untreated, it can cause detrimental effects to your health. 

Generally, the burden of malaria is not evenly distributed. It has a high prevalence in areas with higher humidity and moisture that facilitates the growth of mosquitoes.

What causes malaria?

Malaria is neither a bacterial nor a viral disease. It is caused by a parasitic microorganism known as Plasmodium. Plasmodium is a single-celled parasite that is usually borne by mosquitoes.

Four Plasmodium parasites are responsible for causing malaria in humans. They are:

  • P. falciparum
  • P. vivax
  • P. ovale
  • P. malariae

Of the above species, malaria is most commonly caused by P. vivax. However, the real threat is posed by P. falciparum that can kill a person if untreated. The other species also cause illness but they are not lethal. 

How does malaria affect you?

Generally, female Anopheles mosquitoes, upon biting a person, infect that person with plasmodium. These plasmodium parasites enter the human body and multiply in the red blood cells and the intestines.

Some parasites remain dormant in the liver, while most of them enter your bloodstream. It then enters into your red blood cells and multiplies inside them. As a result, your red blood cells burst open. This is when you start to experience the symptoms of malaria. 

Is malaria contagious?

Malaria-causing parasites are usually borne by female anopheles mosquitoes. However, it doesn’t mean that malaria cannot be spread through other means. This disease is transmitted by blood. So, in the following ways, it can transmit:

  • through blood transfusion
  • through organ transplantation
  • using shared syringes and needles
  • from mother to child

But malaria is not a contagious disease. It cannot spread through the air or any other body fluids. It cannot be transmitted through sexual contact either. 

One of the common misconceptions is that this disease transmits to a person if he/she has physical contact with the malaria-affected person. Well, this is not true, as malaria can only be transmitted by blood. 

What are the common symptoms and preventive measures of malaria?

The time taken by your body to show symptoms depends on the activity of the parasites inside you. Some parasites may enter your body and lie dormant for years. In that case, even if you get bitten by a female anopheles mosquito, you will not develop any symptoms. 

When the plasmodium becomes active and enters your bloodstream, the symptoms will start. Usually, the symptoms will begin within a few weeks from the mosquito bites. 

Some effects of malaria include:

  • Mild to severe fever
  • Moderate to severe chills
  • cough
  • Persistent headache
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Feeling of discomfort
  • Diarrhea
  • Pain in muscles and joints
  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Abdominal pain

Some people may cyclically experience some of these symptoms. For example, you experience severe fever along with chills for a couple of days, followed by diarrhea, then you sweat profusely and then you return to normal temperature. 

It is advisable to go to the hospital if you experience any of the listed symptoms continuously. Usually, the doctor would prescribe a blood test to check and confirm the disease. 

What are the risk factors of malaria?

The tropical climate is characterised by warm temperature and high humidity. This climate provides a conducive environment for the growth and breeding of mosquitoes including Anopheles mosquitoes. 

Hence, naturally, people living in these areas around the globe are at higher risk compared to Scandinavian and other sub-polar climates. 

It also works backward. Since malaria is persistent in these climate zones, people from such areas will have developed partial immunity against this disease. But this immunity will wane if they move to areas out of the tropical zone. 

In addition, infants, younger children and elderly people are highly susceptible to this disease as their immunity is less. Also, the effects of malaria can be severe among such groups. 

What are the diagnosis and treatments available?

Your doctor will require your recent medical history and may suggest some physical tests along with a blood test. Your doctor will also find out if you have developed an enlarged liver or spleen. 

These tests show the type of malaria from which you get affected and how severe it is. Your doctor will also be able to identify if the disease-causing parasite is resistant to the drugs, if the disease has affected any of your vital organs or if it has caused anemia. 

Based on the types of malaria and their symptoms, your doctor will suggest medications and treatments. In some cases, the parasites such as P. vivax and P. ovale lie dormant in your liver for years and reactivate at any time. 

Doctors, upon identifying such parasites will prescribe medications to prevent the occurrence of this disease from dormant parasites in the future. 

What are the preventive measures for malaria?

After a long pause, WHO has approved the malarial vaccine, RTS, S. With this vaccine, the prevalence of malaria can be highly controlled, especially among children. 

Apart from that, this disease can be prevented by not exposing your body to mosquitoes. Covering your house windows with mosquito nets and applying mosquito repellents will help you in preventing the spread of this disease. 

A word of concern

There is no doubt that malaria is a serious threat if left untreated. But this is a disease that can be highly prevented and the deaths due to it can highly be reduced with proper preventive measures and effective treatments. 

Although the threat of malaria is higher in tropical areas, it doesn’t mean that this disease will not affect other places of the globe. With global warming and uncertainties in climate, the threat of malaria can spread to other places as well. 

However, humans have succeeded in eliminating various life-threatening diseases. Malaria can also go under this list if collective hygiene, effective preventive measures and proper treatments are in place. 

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