Malaria and the Brain

QUESTION

How long does it take malaria to reach your brain?

ANSWER

The process by which malaria affects the brain is complicated, and the amount of time also varies. First of all, only one species of malaria parasite is associated with the brain – this is Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly form of malaria. It is dangerous because when it infects red blood cells, it makes them “sticky,” so that they become lodged in the small blood vessels in the body’s organs. This process is called sequestration, and results in reduced blood flow to the organs, which can result in further complications.

When infected red blood cells sequester in the brain, the result is so-called “cerebral malaria,” which can lead to impaired consciousness, coma and even death. P. falciparum¬†reproduces rapidly, so if not treated promptly, cerebral manifestations of the infection could appear within a matter of a few days of the initial onset of malaria symptoms. The good news is that treatment is very safe and effective, especially when started early, so when malaria is suspected as the possible cause of an illness, a blood test should be performed immediately to test for malaria, and also to determine if the species is P. falciparum.

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