Malaria is a plasmodium infection transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito. When an anopheles mosquito sucks blood from an infected person, it ingests plasmodium parasites. These parasites then multiply within the gut of the mosquito and are again injected into an uninfected person the next time the mosquito sucks blood. Malaria is normally caused by any of the four species of plasmodium, namely P. malariae, P. falciparum, P. ovale and P. vivax. The incubation period of malaria, or the time between initial infection and the appearance of symptoms is 7 to 18 days.
Malaria is a serious health problem globally. In 2015 alone, more than 212 million cases and 438,000 deaths were recorded. It is most common in the tropical regions including South America, Asia, Africa, Middle East and Oceania. In cooler regions of the world, malaria generally occurs as a result of people having traveled to malaria-prone countries 1.
Symptom #1: Headache
Headache is one of the most common malaria symptoms. This does not, however, mean that anytime you have a headache you are likely to have malaria. As with headaches occurring due to other issues, a headache associated with malaria arises when the nervous system picks up pain signals within the tissues in the head. The exact mechanism of headaches in acute malaria is unknown. However, it is associated with excessive production of pro-inflammatory substances, called cytokines (TNF, IL-1), by the body’s immune system. Furthermore, in severe infections caused by P. falciparum, cerebral malaria may be the cause of headache. This is caused by the sequestration of parasitized destroyed red cells in the small blood vessels in the brain and is enhanced by proinflammatory cytokines.
Consult a medical professional if you have a history of recent travel to an endemic area accompanied by a headache and other symptoms suggestive of malaria.