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How contagious is malaria?

How contagious is malaria?
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Can you catch malaria from a person?

No, malaria is nearly always transmitted through the bite of a female anopheles mosquito that is carrying plasmodium parasites. When a mosquito bites a person with malaria they take in the parasites. Though mosquitoes are not affected by these parasites, they can pass them on through bites.

The parasites enter the bloodstream of the person who has been bitten, and travel to their liver where they multiply over a period of days or weeks. From the liver these parasites enter the bloodstream and attack the red blood cells, causing symptoms.

How is malaria spread?

Malaria is a serious disease which causes thousands of deaths around the world each year which is spread by mosquitoes. Unlike many other tropical diseases, malaria cannot be passed on directly from one person to another. In other words, malaria is not contagious. Most people who contract malaria have been bitten by a mosquito carrying infected blood from another person. In a very small number of cases, malaria has been transmitted through the sharing of needles or blood transfusions – but this is very rare.

Is malaria contagious between humans?

No, you cannot catch malaria through:

  • Close contact with a person experiencing malaria symptoms
  • Sexual intercourse or sexual activity with an infected person
  • Food or water contaminated by an infected person

If you are travelling with somebody and they become sick with malaria, you do not need to worry about catching the disease directly from them. However, you should be even more cautious about malaria prevention techniques, particularly if you are still in a malaria zone.

What is the first sign of malaria?

Malaria normally has an incubation period of seven to 18 days. This means that, after being bitten by a mosquito carrying the disease, you typically won’t develop symptoms for at least one week. If you arrive in a malaria zone (from a non-malaria zone) and start to experience symptoms within a few days, it is unlikely that you have malaria.

Malaria symptoms include:

  • A fever
  • Chills and shivering
  • Profuse sweating
  • Headache

It’s also common to experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and muscle aches and pains.

The classic characteristic of malaria is cyclical bouts of symptoms: a fever, followed by chills, and finally sweating, occurring every two or three days. The parasites p. falciparum, p. vivax and p. ovale can cause the onset of symptoms every two days (when red blood cells burst, releasing more parasites). P. malariae is thought to cause the onset of symptoms every three days. The symptoms come on over a period of hours and start with chills, followed by a fever, and lastly sweating.

Not everyone who has malaria will experience these cyclical symptoms; if you begin to experience any of the symptoms described above, and you have spent time in a malaria zone recently you should immediately seek medical assistance. Swift diagnosis and treatment will help you to recover from the disease more quickly and avoid serious complications.

Contagious diseases with symptoms similar to malaria

Though malaria itself is not contagious, it causes similar symptoms to certain contagious diseases. In many areas where malaria is prevalent, other serious diseases can be widespread.

  • Meningococcal meningitis

    Meningitis caused by meningococcus bacteria is prevalent in areas of sub-Saharan Africa (where malaria is also rife). It is highly contagious, spread from person to person through infected droplets from the nose or mouth.

    The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis include a fever, headache, and vomiting. However, unlike malaria, meningitis also usually causes a stiff neck, confusion, and increased sensitivity to light. In severe cases the bacteria can cause septicaemia, leading to the development of a rash across the body.

    How do you get meningococcal meningitis?

    Meningitis is caused by an infection either from bacteria or a virus. It is spread through sneezing, coughing, kissing or sharing toothbrushes or cutlery with someone who has the infection.

  • Hepatitis A

    Hepatitis A (Hep A) is a viral disease that affects the liver. The initial symptoms of hepatitis A are flu-like and could be easily mistaken for malaria. People with hepatitis A often feel tired, unwell, and nauseous, they may have a fever, muscle pains, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Unlike malaria, hepatitis A can also cause an itchy rash and pain around the liver.

    How do you get hepatitis A?

    Hep A is considered a contagious disease, as it is spread in the faeces of infected people. It is most common in areas with poor sanitation and is found in many different parts of the world where malaria is also widespread, such as Africa and India. Most travellers contract hepatitis A from consuming contaminated food or water.

  • Tuberculosis

    Tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious bacterial disease that is spread in the coughs, sneezes, and saliva of an infected person. It is most common in African and Asian countries, often in areas where malaria can also be found.

    Can tuberculosis kill you?

    TB causes fatigue, fever, and night sweats, like malaria. Usually this disease also causes a cough (that brings up phlegm and sometimes blood), pain in the chest, difficulty breathing, and weight loss. TB can be fatal if left untreated. However, with the right antibiotics and care it can be cured.

Staying safe while overseas

Although malaria is not contagious, it can be prevalent in areas where diseases that are contagious are widespread. The best way to stay safe if you are going overseas is to speak to a travel health professional before leaving the UK. They will be able to advise you about your malaria risk and offer guidance on other diseases that you may be exposed to during your trip.

Check what vaccines you need

How to protect yourself from malaria

To aid in the prevention of malaria, global health bodies such as the NHS and the World Health Organization promote the use of the ABCD method. This stands for:

  • Awareness of risk - The first step in malaria prevention is finding out whether you will be at risk of malaria in the areas you are travelling to. Also, the more you know about malaria, the better equipped you are to stay protected.
  • Bite prevention - Upon arriving in a country affected by malaria, you should begin practising bite avoidance. Protecting yourself from mosquito bites is the best way to avoid malaria.
  • Chemoprophylaxis - Chemoprophylaxis is a word which describes medicines administered to prevent (rather than treat) sickness. Malaria chemoprophylaxis takes the form of antimalarial tablets, of which there are a few different varieties. Currently, the three most commonly prescribed antimalarial tablets in the UK are; Atovaquone and Proguanil (Malarone, Maloff), Doxycycline and Mefloquine (Lariam).
  • Diagnosis and treatment - it’s important that you familiarise yourself with the symptoms of malaria to facilitate swift diagnosis and treatment.

When you are in a malaria zone, you must be particularly cautious about mosquito bite avoidance after the sun goes down, and before it rises in the morning. This is because the mosquitoes that spread malaria tend to feed during these hours. You can protect yourself by using mosquito repellent, wearing long-sleeved tops and trousers, and sleeping in accommodation with air conditioning, screens on the windows and doors, and plug-in insecticides.

In the case of TB, Hep A and meningitis, vaccinations are available. If your healthcare professional believes you are particularly at risk of certain diseases, they will recommend a course of travel vaccinations. There is no vaccine for travellers to malaria zones, so to stay protected you will have to practise bite avoidance and, where necessary, take antimalarials.

Visit the LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor malaria clinic and MASTA travel health to find out more.