What is malaria?

Malaria is an infection caused by parasites. It is passed from person to person by mosquitoes. The infection leads to chills, fever, and other flu-like symptoms. If left untreated, malaria can be deadly. Children are most at risk for malaria.

Malaria is common in some parts of the world:

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • the Middle East
  • South America
  • Central America

Children may catch the infection when visiting these areas. It is important to prepare ahead of time when travelling. Carry and take the proper medication.

Countries Where Malaria is Common
Get Adobe Flash player
There is a risk of malaria in the countries on the map that are coloured in red. Data taken from the World Health Organization's World Malaria Report 2009.

Signs and symptoms of malaria

Malaria symptoms usually appear 6 to 30 days after infection. Symptoms may take up to 12 months to show. The symptoms are similar to a terrible flu:

  • fever
  • chills
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • extreme weakness
  • muscle aches
  • pain in the abdomen, back, and joints
  • coughing
  • confusion

Malaria is a dangerous cause of fever in children who return from travelling. Fever is a symptom, not a disease. It is the body’s response to infections. A fever may mean that something serious is occurring. It needs to be investigated by a doctor.

If your child shows several of these signs, see a doctor right away. If not treated properly, they can get worse rapidly.

Once treated, symptoms usually go away in a few days. Some children take longer to recover.

Many other diseases share the same signs as malaria. This may delay diagnosis in children.


Severe complications include:

  • brain damage
  • severe anaemia
  • shock
  • seizure
  • kidney failure
  • coma

What your child’s doctor can do

If the doctor suspects malaria, your child may need to go to the hospital. Blood tests will help with diagnosis. Blood tests can determine what type of parasite caused the infection.


Malaria is treated with specifc medicine. The type and length of treatment depends on:

  • the type of parasite
  • the severity of the illness
  • the age of the child
  • the pattern of drug resistance in the area travelled

Your child may need to see a doctor specializing in infectious diseases or tropical medicine. Extreme cases of malaria might require a special type of blood transfusion.


If you plan to visit a malarial area, you need to prepare to avoid infection. Anti-malarial medications are the most common way to prevent infection. It is important to take the medication exactly as ordered. It is taken a few days before departure, throughout your trip, and then a few weeks after returning home.

Other ways to protect against malaria:

  • use a bed net treated with insecticide
  • use insect repellents
  • wear protective clothing like long sleeves and pants
  • stay indoors from dusk to dawn
  • use air conditioners where available, instead of opening windows

Breastfed babies

If your child is being breastfed and you are taking medication for malaria, your baby also still needs medication.

When to seek medical assistance after treatment:

See your child’s regular doctor if:

  • your child’s fever or other symptoms do not respond in 1 to 2 days to the medication
  • your child misses days of medication
  • your child has yellow eyes

Take your child to the nearest Emergency Department, or call 911 if necessary, if your child:

  • appears confused
  • has a high fever that is not brought down by acetaminophen or ibuprofen​
  • has difficulty breathing
  • has severe stomach pains
  • is not able to tolerate medication by mouth
  • has not passed urine in 8 hours or has very dark urine
  • is fainting
  • has had a seizure
  • is lethargic
  • is not looking well
  • has abnormal bruising
  • if you have any other concerns

Key points

  • Malaria is an infection. It is passed on by mosquitoes. Malaria can be caught while travelling in some parts of the world.
  • The symptoms may be similar to a terrible flu.
  • If your child has malaria symptoms, see a doctor right away.
  • If left untreated, malaria can be deadly.
  • If you plan to visit an area affected by malaria, you need to prepare to avoid infection.

Sheila Jacobson, MBBCh, FRCPC


Canada communicable Disease Report 2009. Vol 35 (Canadian  recommendations for the prevention and treatment of malaria among international travellers)  (Traveller's Health) (Health Canada)  (International Travel and Health)