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Malaria: Life-Threatening Complications

Topic Overview

Life-threatening complications can develop with a malaria infection, especially when a person is infected by the malaria-causing parasite Plasmodium (P.) falciparum.

When the parasite infects red blood cells, the cells stick to the walls of blood vessels. As the blood vessels become blocked, blood supply to vital organs stops, and the person may die without treatment.

Life-threatening situations because of malaria infection with P. falciparum may include:

  • Severe infection of the brain (cerebral malaria), with seizures, confusion, and increasing tiredness leading to coma and death.
  • Fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema).
  • Kidney failure.
  • Abnormal liver function.
  • Aplastic anemia.
  • A low number of white blood cells.
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
  • Altered blood chemistry, including low sodium and lowered pH (lactic acidosis).
  • "Blackwater fever" (massive destruction of red blood cells, which causes dark-colored urine).

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
Last Revised April 11, 2013

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