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Complications - Malaria

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.

Complications of severe malaria can happen 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 where the red blood cells are unable to carry enough oxygen to the body's muscles and organs. This leaves you feeling drowsy, weak and faint.

Cerebral malaria

In rare cases, malaria can affect the brain. This is called cerebral malaria, which can cause your brain to swell. This can sometimes lead to permanent brain damage. It can also cause fits (seizures) or coma.

Other complications

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)
  • low blood sugar – hypoglycaemia
  • kidney failure
  • swelling and rupturing of the spleen
  • dehydration

Malaria in pregnancy

If you get malaria while pregnant, you and your baby have an increased risk of developing serious complications, such as:

Contact your GP if you're pregnant and travelling to a high-risk area. They may recommend taking antimalarial medication.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

Page last reviewed: 23 March 2021
Next review due: 23 March 2024

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.