There’s never a good time to be bit by a mosquito, but it’s more important than ever to stay protected from these pesky critters. The Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) recently issued a warning after the United States saw five cases of malaria spread by mosquitoes in the last two months. The malaria cases were identified in southwest Florida and southern Texas, and the five cases are the first to have spread in the US in 20 years.
“People living in malaria-endemic areas, including many tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, are at the highest risk of getting infected with malaria,” says Jeffery Tun, MD, a primary care physician at New York Medicine Doctors. In addition, young children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to severe malaria and its complications, he explains.
That said, the CDC report states that “malaria is a medical emergency and should be treated accordingly,” so it’s important to know what causes malaria in the first place. With cases on the rise and summer travel in full swing, POPSUGAR talked to experts about the signs and symptoms of malaria and how to best stay protected.
What Is Malaria?
Malaria is a serious and sometimes life-threatening disease caused by Plasmodium parasites that are transmitted to humans through the bite of infected Anopheles female mosquitoes, says Dr. Tun. “The parasites multiply in the liver and then invade red blood cells, which can cause severe anemia, cerebral malaria, organ failure, and death if left untreated,” he explains.
According to the CDC, 2,000 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the United States each year, mainly from travelers returning from parts of the world where malaria transmission occurs, and those infected become extremely sick with flu-like symptoms.
What Causes Malaria?
Again, malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites that are transmitted to humans through the bite of infected Anopheles mosquitoes, Dr. Tun says.
To break this down further, a mosquito becomes infected by feeding on a person who has malaria. If that infected mosquito then bites you, it transmits the parasites which travel to your liver and blood stream, per the Mayo Clinic. Once the parasites infect your red blood cells, you become sick and begin to experience symptoms.
Is Malaria Contagious?
No. Malaria is not a contagious disease, which means it is rarely transmitted from person to person, says Laura Purdy, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician. It cannot be spread through saliva or physical contact, and transmission is primarily spread through infected mosquitoes, she explains.
That said, malaria can be spread through a few other modes including, from a mother to an unborn child, through blood transfusions, and by sharing needles, per the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of Malaria
Malaria symptoms usually appear 10 to 15 days after the infected mosquito bite and typically include the following symptoms, according to Dr. Tun.
- Body aches
- Muscle pain
- Night sweats
- Jaundice (a yellow coloring of the skin and eyes)
How to Treat Malaria
Luckily, malaria can be treated with different antimalarial medications that kill the parasites, Dr. Tun says. “The type of treatment depends on the type of Plasmodium parasite causing the infection and the severity of the illness, but mild-to-moderate cases of malaria can be treated with oral medication, whereas severe cases require intravenous treatment,” he explains.
If you suspect you have malaria, visit a doctor immediately and share information about any countries or states you have recently visited. From there, a physician will take a blood sample to check for malaria parasites before beginning treatment.
How to Prevent Malaria
Prevention is key when it comes to malaria and Dr. Tun recommends doing your best to avoid mosquito bites, especially during peak biting times at dawn and dusk, by using insect repellent, wearing long-sleeved clothing, and sleeping under mosquito nets. Dr. Purdy also suggests mosquito repellent lotions and candles.
Additionally, if you’re traveling to an area with an increased risk of malaria such as sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Pacific Islands, Central America, and northern South America, you should take antimalarial medication as prescribed by a health care professional before your trip, Dr. Tun adds. Researchers are still developing a preventative malaria vaccine, per the Mayo Clinic.
Children under five, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are also at higher risk, so if you are traveling to a location where malaria is common, talk with your doctor a few months prior about how to best stay protected, Dr. Purdy says.