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Malaria

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Malaria is a disease that usually spreads by infected mosquitoes.
  • Malaria is common in parts of Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Pacific Islands and the Middle East, and is sometimes found in the Torres Strait Islands.
  • Malaria may also affect people in Australia who have travelled to affected areas.
  • If you travel to an area affected by malaria, you should be careful to prevent mosquito bites and use medicines to prevent malaria.
  • If you develop a fever after returning from an area with malaria, see a doctor to check for malaria.

What is malaria?

Malaria is a disease caused by parasites in the plasmodium family. You can catch malaria if you are bitten by an infected mosquito. Malaria causes a disease that can affect your red blood cells and liver. It can sometimes be fatal if you aren't treated in time. Like many diseases, it is better avoid catching malaria than to treat it.

Occasionally, malaria can spread through blood transfusions. If you travel to a country known to have malaria, you will not be able to donate blood for a short time after you return to Australia. Malaria can't spread directly by person-to-person contact.

What are the symptoms of malaria?

If you catch malaria, you usually start to feel unwell about 9 to 14 days after infection. You might have:

If untreated, malaria can cause brain infection (cerebral malaria), anaemia, kidney failure, seizures, coma and even death. You might only notice symptoms several months after infection. Some types can recur years later.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Am I at risk of malaria?

Malaria is common in parts of Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Pacific Islands and the Middle East. While it is not often found in most parts of Australia, occasionally the Torres Strait Islands are affected. When travelling to areas affected by malaria, it is important that you take precautions to avoid becoming infected. Your risk of getting malaria is usually higher in rural areas than in cities.

Malaria can affect anyone, but young children and people who are pregnant have a higher risk of becoming sick. Take extra care if you are pregnant, as malaria can increase your risk of miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth. Young children are also at high risk and can quickly become very sick if infected.

How can I prevent malaria?

There are 2 main ways to reduce your chance of becoming sick with malaria:

  • taking anti-malarial medicines
  • preventing mosquito bites

If you are travelling to a malaria-infected area, you should take anti-malarial medicine before, during and after you travel. Visit your doctor or a travel clinic 4 to 6 weeks before you travel. Your doctor or travel clinic can advise you whether the area you plan to visit is affected, whether you need preventative treatment and when to start any preventative medicines.

Some malaria medicines are considered safe to take during pregnancy and breastfeeding, while others are not. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, check any medicines with your doctor or pharmacist.

To avoid mosquito bites you should:

  • Stay indoors at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active.
  • Stay in a screened or air-conditioned room, or sleep under a mosquito net treated with permethrin (an insecticide).
  • When outside, wear covered footwear and loose clothing that covers your body.
  • Apply mosquito repellent containing DEET (diethyltoluamide). If you are pregnant or travelling with children, check with your doctor first.
  • Spray mosquito repellent onto your clothes.
  • Use pyrethrum insect sprays or vaporising mats inside.
  • Burn mosquito coils when outdoors.

These precautions will help reduce your risk of infection, but it's important to remember that nothing can guarantee your protection from malaria. Please seek medical help immediately if you develop malaria symptoms.

How will my doctor diagnose malaria?

Your doctor can diagnose malaria with a special blood test. The blood test may need to be repeated, as it can be difficult to detect the parasites that cause malaria.

How will my doctor treat malaria?

If you develop symptoms of malaria during or after travel, you should see a doctor straight away. If your doctor diagnoses malaria, it's important that you treatment as soon as possible.

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Last reviewed: June 2022


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