Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2003;68(3):515-516

What is malaria? Who gets it?

Malaria is a serious disease that is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. Malaria occurs in the warmer regions of the world. Large areas of Central and South America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East are risk areas for malaria.

Anyone, at any age, can get malaria. Each year, about 1,500 persons get malaria by traveling from the United States to a malaria-risk area. Most cases of malaria could be prevented by taking medicine and avoiding mosquitoes.

How is malaria transmitted?

If you are bitten by an infected mosquito, you can get the malaria parasite. The parasite goes from the mosquito's mouth into your blood. In your blood, the parasite infects your liver and red blood cells. Then it changes into a form that can infect other mosquitoes if they bite you. This continues the circle of infection.

Who is at risk for malaria?

If you live in or travel to any area where malaria is transmitted, you can become infected. You risk getting the infection even if you spend less than an hour in a malaria area.

How can I tell if I have malaria?

The main symptoms of malaria are fever, chills and sweats, headaches, muscle and joint pain, nausea and vomiting, and stomach pain. Symptoms usually begin 10 days to four weeks after infection. However, malaria symptoms might start as early as eight days or as late as one year after you were in a malaria area.

Can I do anything to keep from getting malaria?

You should see your doctor four to six weeks before traveling to a foreign country. Your doctor can tell you if you need to take a medicine to prevent malaria infection.

While you are traveling, you should try to avoid mosquito bites by taking these steps:

  • Limit your nighttime activities (this is when mosquitoes commonly bite). Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants if you go outside at night.

  • Use insect repellent with DEET on your hands and face and any exposed skin. You may have to put it on every three to four hours.

  • Sleep in a building that has air-conditioning or screens over the doors and windows. If there are no screens, shut the windows and doors at sunset.

  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net soaked with permethrin (an insect repellent).

  • Take your medicine exactly on schedule and don't miss any doses. Keep taking the medicine as long as your doctor tells you to.

What should I do if I think I have malaria?

If you get a fever or a flu-like illness while traveling or within one year after coming back home, see your doctor right away. Tell your doctor that you have been to a malaria-risk area. Your doctor can use a simple blood test to see if you have malaria.

Where can I get more information about malaria?

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Voice Information Service

    Telephone: 888-232-3228

    Malaria hotline,

    Telephone: 770-488-7788

    Web address:

  • World Health Organization

    Web address:

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