Symptoms of Malaria

malaria symptoms
© Verywell, 2018

Malaria is an infection caused by a parasite. If you have malaria, you are likely to experience a number of vague symptoms that are typical of most infections, as well as some trademark symptoms that are more specifically associated with a malaria infection.

The physical effects of malaria occur largely because the parasite invades red blood cells, producing toxins, causing anemia (low red blood cell function), and potentially blocking small blood vessels throughout the body.

Frequent Symptoms

Symptoms of the illness tend to occur in cycles, which correspond to the life cycle of the parasite. During different phases of the parasite’s life cycle, there is a variation in how the organism itself affects red blood cells and there is a variation in the impact of the resulting toxins on the body.

There are several different species of malaria parasites, and they all cause similar symptoms, with the primary differences manifested as different time courses of the illness.

You are likely to experience an incubation period after exposure to the parasite, with a delay in symptom onset. The first signs of malaria occur between one to four weeks after exposure and may take substantially longer in some instances.

The most common symptoms of malaria are:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue 
  • Low energy
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Myalgia (muscle aches)
  • Stomach upset 
  • Diarrhea

Cyclic Symptoms

Cycles of fever that last from six to 24 hours may alternate with rounds of chills, shaking, and daytime sweating or night sweats. This cyclic characteristic is often the most recognizable sign of malaria, distinguishing it from other infections and promoting your medical team to test you for malaria. These symptoms include:

  • Fever, which can be very high
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Night sweats
  • Shaking

Less Common Symptoms

Malaria can affect several body systems, particularly if it is untreated. Less common symptoms of malaria include:

  • Jaundice: (yellow color of the skin or eyes)
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath caused by fluid in the lungs
  • Expanded abdomen caused by an enlarged spleen
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)

If you notice these, particularly after travel to a malaria-prone area, seek prompt medical attention.

Complications

Serious complications of malaria can affect 30 to 60 percent of adults and children who have the condition. If you have immune system deficiencies, or if you are not in good health, you are more likely to develop complications. However, a healthy person with a strong immune system may develop complications of malaria, even with recommended treatment.

Thrombocytopenia 

A low platelet count can interfere with blood clotting, manifesting as excessive bleeding or excessive blood clots.

Anemia 

Mild anemia occurs with malaria infection. Sometimes, the infection can become advanced, causing a severely low red blood cell count or profoundly diminished red blood cell function. The symptoms of anemia include fatigue, headaches, and low blood pressure.

Kidney Involvement 

Parasites inside the red blood cells may cause blockage of tiny vessels in the kidneys or red blood cells may clump due to toxins. This can interfere with normal kidney function and may cause pain. 

Brain Involvement 

Cerebral malaria, a condition in which the parasite is present in the blood cells in the brain, is relatively uncommon. Symptoms include seizures, motor weakness, vision loss, decreased consciousness, coma and permanent neurological deficits or even death.

Loss of Consciousness or Coma

A rare complication of malaria, unresponsiveness can occur as a result of advanced disease, even without cerebral malaria.

Death

Malaria can result in death due to widespread complications. Children who become infected with malaria are more likely to experience a death that adults are. However, prompt attention to symptoms goes a long way in preventing not just this but all complications.

During Pregnancy

Pregnant women have been found to have a higher than usual susceptibility to malaria. If the infection is not treated during pregnancy, it may cause birth defects or the young baby may be born with malaria infection.

Recurrent Infections 

Most people who have a healthy immune system develop partial immunity to malaria. Repeated infections generally produce milder symptoms than initial infections, with a longer than usual incubation period due to the partial immunity. However, it is possible for recurrent infections to become severe and progress, producing serious complications, which is why preventive measures are necessary.

When to See a Doctor 

If you have fevers, fatigue, new headaches, or persistent headaches, you should see your doctor because these are the signs of most infections. If you have cyclical fevers, chills, and sweats, this is specifically suggestive of malaria infection.

You should be familiar with the common signs and symptoms of malaria if you have been in a tropical climate and notice that you were bitten by mosquitoes, as this is the way through which malaria is transmitted.

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