Produced by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, January 2012.
This factsheet is for people who are going to a country with malaria, or who would like information about how to protect themselves against malaria.
Malaria is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease, which can be prevented. It’s spread by the bite from a female mosquito, which infects people with a parasite called Plasmodium.
Malaria is an infection that can cause serious illness and can be life threatening. You get malaria from the bite of an infected female anopheles mosquito. The anopheles mosquitoes that carry malaria usually bite at dusk and during the night. Mosquitoes carry a parasite called Plasmodium, which infects your red blood cells.
If you’re bitten by a mosquito carrying malaria, it usually takes between seven and 18 days to develop symptoms. However, for some people the symptoms may not develop for up to a year. You may have:
Malaria can develop very quickly and needs immediate treatment. If malaria isn’t treated, you may have more serious health problems, for example fits, loss of consciousness, kidney failure and blood clotting problems. If you have any of these symptoms, or feel unwell at all and you have been to a country where there is malaria, it’s important to get medical help straightaway.
There are four important types of malaria including Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium ovale and Plasmodium malariae. Of these, Plasmodium falciparum causes the most infections and is the most severe form.
The mosquitoes that carry malaria are found in more than 100 different countries. This includes countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and parts of the Middle East. In these countries malaria is very common. As many as 250 million people across the world get malaria every year.
You can’t catch malaria in the UK. However, around 1,500 people are treated for the infection every year in the UK, having got it while travelling or developing the disease when they arrive into the UK from countries where malaria is found.
People who live in an area with malaria can gradually build up some immunity to the disease, because they are continuously exposed to it. However, any immunity you may have built up when living in a country with malaria quickly goes away once you leave it.
People travelling to countries where there is malaria usually don’t have any immunity. Therefore it’s important to take steps to prevent the disease. You can prevent malaria by following the ABCD of malaria prevention.
The key to preventing malaria is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. There are some factors that increase your risk of being bitten. The main ones are listed below.
You can reduce your risk of being bitten by ensuring you’re well prepared and following a number of precautions. The main ones are listed below.
There are a number of different medicines that can help to prevent malaria, although you also need to follow the advice for preventing mosquito bites. Your GP will prescribe you a medicine based on your health, where you’re travelling to, what you will be doing there and how long you will be there.
See your GP or visit a travel health clinic before you travel, ideally six to eight weeks before. You will need to take the medicines before you travel, while you’re away and when you come back. It’s very important to finish the course of medicines prescribed for you.
If you’re travelling to a remote place where you won’t have easy access to medical help, your GP may prescribe emergency standby treatment for you. You can use this if you develop the symptoms of malaria and are unable to get to a doctor. Ask your GP for more information.
No medicine for preventing malaria is totally effective, but you can greatly reduce your risk of getting the disease if you take the right medicine. Malaria in most parts of the world is now resistant to chloroquine so most people requiring prophylaxis will be prescribed either doxycycline, proguanil with atovaquone or mefloquine. Some of the common medicines are listed below.
Ideally, if you're pregnant you shouldn't travel to an area where there is a risk of malaria. This is because you’re at greater risk of severe malaria.
If you do have to travel then it’s important to follow the guidelines to avoid mosquito bites and take medicines as prescribed. Being pregnant makes you more likely to get bitten, so protecting yourself is very important. If you can, stay indoors between dusk and dawn. You can also take chloroquine and proguanil during pregnancy, though other medicines may be unsafe. Ask your GP or travel health clinic for more information.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see Common questions.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Publication date: January 2012