What is malaria?
Malaria is a disease spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes. It causes an infection of the red blood cells that can sometimes be fatal if left untreated. Like many diseases, it is better to prevent it, if possible, than treat it.
What are the symptoms of malaria?
If you are developing malaria, you usually start to feel unwell 9 to 14 days after infection. You might have:
- fever that might come and go
- excessive sweating
- headache and aching joints
- nausea, stomach ache and possibly diarrhoea or vomiting
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
If untreated, malaria can cause brain infection (cerebral malaria), anaemia, kidney failure, seizures, coma and even death. Malaria can occur months after infection, and some types can recur years later.
Who is 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 present in mainland Australia, occasionally the Torres Strait Islands are affected. When travelling to areas affected by malaria, it is important to take precautions to avoid becoming infected.
Malaria can affect anyone, but pregnant women are particularly at risk. Malaria can be severe in pregnant women and can increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth. Young children are also at high risk, and can become rapidly ill when infected.
Can malaria be prevented?
If you are travelling to a malaria-infected area, you should take antimalarial medication. Medication must be taken before, during and after travel. Visit your doctor or a travel clinic 4 to 6 weeks before you plan to travel to see if an area you plan to visit is affected, and to get a prescription if needed.
Some malaria medicines, such as chloroquine, are considered safe to take during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Others are not.
To avoid mosquito bites:
- 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
- wear covered footwear outside and loose, light-coloured clothing that covers your body
- apply mosquito repellent containing DEET (diethyltoluamide). Use sparingly on children and avoid their hands, eyes and mouth. If you are pregnant, check with your doctor first
- spray mosquito repellent onto your clothes
- use pyrethrum insect sprays or vaporising mats inside
- burn mosquito coils when outdoors
Unfortunately, these precautions can't guarantee your protection from malaria. Please seek medical help immediately if you develop malaria symptoms.
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Last reviewed: January 2020