Malaria is a serious illness that can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated quickly. Pregnant women, babies, young children and the elderly are particularly at risk.
The Plasmodium falciparum parasite causes the most severe malaria symptoms and most deaths.
As complications of severe malaria can occur within hours or days of the first symptoms, it's important to seek urgent medical help as soon as possible.
The destruction of red blood cells by the malaria parasite can cause severe anaemia.
Anaemia is a condition where the red blood cells are unable to carry enough oxygen to the body's muscles and organs, leaving you feeling drowsy, weak and faint.
In rare cases, malaria can affect the brain. This is known as cerebral malaria, which can cause your brain to swell, sometimes leading to permanent brain damage. It can also cause fits (seizures) or coma.
Other complications that can arise as a result of severe malaria include:
- liver failure and jaundice – yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
- shock – a sudden drop in blood pressure
- pulmonary oedema – a build-up of fluid in the lungs
- acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
- abnormally low blood sugar – hypoglycaemia
- kidney failure
- swelling and rupturing of the spleen
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that pregnant women should avoid travelling to areas where there's a risk of malaria.
If you get malaria while pregnant, you and your baby have an increased risk of developing serious complications, such as:
- premature birth – birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy
- low birth weight
- restricted growth of the baby in the womb
- death of the mother
Visit your GP if you're pregnant and travelling to a high-risk area. They may recommend taking antimalarial medication.
Read more about taking antimalarials while pregnant.