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Is Malaria Contagious?
Find out how malaria is spread
Most people have heard of malaria and are aware that it is a serious disease which causes thousands of deaths around the world each year. It is also widely known that malaria is spread by mosquitoes.
What many people don’t realise is that, unlike many other tropical diseases, malaria cannot be passed on directly from one person to another. In other words, malaria is not contagious. The vast majority of 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.
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.
Malaria is nearly always transmitted through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito that is carrying Plasmodium parasites. There are five different types of Plasmodium parasite that cause malaria in humans, the most dangerous of which is Plasmodium falciparum.
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.
If you have been in a malaria zone (having travelled from a non-malaria zone) for at least one week and you develop the characteristic symptoms of malaria, you should seek medical assistance as soon as possible. If you have been in a malaria zone for less than a week, it is unlikely that you have malaria. This is because malaria parasites usually incubate in the liver for at least seven days before they begin to cause symptoms.
Most people who contract malaria will experience:
- Chills and shivering
- Profuse sweating
It’s also common to suffer from muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. As directed above, if you notice these symptoms in yourself or a travel companion after you have spent at least seven days in a malaria zone you should seek medical help.
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.
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.
Hepatitis A is a viral disease that affects the liver. It 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.
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, and suffer from a fever, muscle pains, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Unlike malaria, hepatitis A can also cause an itchy rash and pain around the liver.
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.
TB causes fatigue, fever, and night sweats, similar to malaria. Usually this disease also causes a cough (that brings up phlegm and sometimes blood), pain in the chest, difficulty breathing, and weight loss.
Staying safe while overseas
As we have seen malaria is not contagious, however 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.
In the case of the three contagious diseases listed above, vaccinations are available. If your doctor or nurse believes you are particularly at risk of certain diseases, they will recommended a course of travel vaccinations, which may include the vaccines for meningitis ACWY, hepatitis A, and tuberculosis.
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 to find out more.