What is Involved in Making a Diagnosis of Malaria?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2019
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The diagnosis of malaria often begins with assessing a patient’s medical and travel history. A patient’s medical history helps doctors determine if the patient’s symptoms may be caused by a condition besides malaria. The travel history may help doctors as well, as doctors can use it to determine if the patient has recently traveled to places in which infected mosquitoes are prevalent. After a doctor has evaluated a patient’s history, he may order blood smear tests to detect the presence of the parasites that cause malaria. The blood smear test is the most commonly used test, but doctors may use others as well.

Unfortunately, analyzing a patient’s symptoms isn't usually enough to result in an accurate malaria diagnosis. The symptoms of malaria, which typically include symptoms that resemble the flu, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and cough, can be present with other conditions as well. For example, if symptom analysis alone is used, it is possible that a doctor could mistake conditions such as yellow fever or cholera for malaria. Instead, the most effective procedure for the diagnosis of malaria requires a doctor to order the correct test to detect malaria-causing parasites.


Valuable time may be wasted if a doctor orders incorrect tests in a malaria case. As such, the procedure for the diagnosis of malaria usually includes obtaining medical and travel history. The medical history may help a doctor rule out other conditions that may be responsible for a patient’s condition. The travel history, however, may reveal whether or not a patient has been in an area known for a prevalence of infected mosquitoes. Malaria can have a significantly long incubation period; people may not immediately think to mention mosquito exposure that may have led to their symptoms if not asked about their travel history.

Once it has been determined that malaria may be the cause of a patient’s illness, the next step in the diagnosis of malaria is usually a test referred to as a blood smear. For this test, a sample of the patient’s blood is placed on a slide and examined for parasites. This particular test is the most commonly used test for malaria, but other test may be performed as well.

After diagnosis, malaria is usually treated with oral or intravenous drugs. The appropriate drug for a case of malaria, however, depends on the species of parasite that has caused the infection. The severity of the condition and the patient’s overall health status may play a role in the choice of medications as well.


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