Is there a blood test for malaria

Malaria is a life-threatening, non contagious disease caused by a parasite transmitted through the bite of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Parasites are small plants or animals that derive nutrients from other living creatures. Early-stage malaria symptoms are very similar to common flu. However, if left undiagnosed or untreated malaria infection can lead to life-threatening complications.

Although malaria does not spread like a common cold, it can spread among people by infected mosquitoes. The parasite infects the mosquitoes when they feed on the blood of an infected person. Once bitten by an infected mosquito, the mosquito releases parasites into the bloodstream of a healthy person that eventually multiplies in the red blood cells, causing ill health. 

Malaria blood tests like malaria blood smear and rapid diagnostic tests look for the presence of these infectious parasites in the blood. This article takes you through everything about blood tests done for malaria infections.  

Blood test for Malaria: What is it?

Malaria is a serious form of a parasitic infection that can cause life-threatening complications if left undiagnosed or untreated. It is more prominent in mosquito breeding areas, especially the tropical and subtropical regions. Statistics have shown that millions of people are infected with malaria, and malaria has led to death among many of them.

Malaria is curable if diagnosed and treated early. Undiagnosed or untreated malaria can lead to organ failure and internal haemorrhage/ bleeding. Malaria tests help detect malaria, its severity, and the type of malarial parasite infection. 

Some of the blood tests for malaria include:

  • Blood smear test: It is one of the most common tests for malaria where the lab technician smears the blood sample over the glass slide and is stained to be viewed under a microscope. However, the parasite number changes every day, and sometimes, blood tests done early may not show detectable parasite numbers. Repeated blood tests every 24 hours for two to three days can ensure an accurate diagnosis. 
  • Rapid diagnostic test (RDT): It is also known as antigen testing, which is a quick testing option for malaria, involving a test strip that changes colour. The colour change can only indicate whether or not the malaria parasite is present and does not tell the species of malaria parasite causing the infection. This test is done when a blood smear test cannot be done. However, the antigen test needs to be followed by a blood smear test to confirm a diagnosis.  
  • Malaria test by PCR: Molecular testing for malaria is done by polymerase chain reaction or PCR test. This test can help identify the type of parasite and helps decide the line of treatment for the infection. This test is ideal when the parasite numbers are low or when the blood smear test results are unclear. 
  • Antibody test: Malaria test name for antibodies- immunofluorescence and Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) can help detect antibodies against the malarial parasite present in the blood. These tests check if a person has previously had a malaria infection based on the antibodies in the blood post-infection.  
  • Drug resistance test: Certain species of malaria parasites are resistant to drugs. Drug resistance tests for malaria help doctors check which medicine can better treat malaria infection. 
  • Other blood tests: Other malaria tests include liver and kidney function tests to help find if the malarial infection has affected liver and kidney functions. These tests are required to determine if the patient has anaemia or not. 

Why is a malaria test done?

Malaria tests are recommended if the doctor suspects a malaria infection based on the symptoms. If you have travelled to regions where malaria infection is common and have developed malaria symptoms, you might need a blood test to check for malaria. The malaria symptoms usually develop within 14 days of a parasite infection. However, sometimes, symptoms show up as early as seven days or as long as a year. Early stage malaria symptoms similar to common flu are:

  • High fever followed by chills
  • Extreme weakness or fatigue,
  • Severe body aches,
  • Headache, 
  • Vomiting or nausea.

Here are some symptoms common during the later stages of malaria infection.

  • Persistent high fever,
  • Shivering,
  • Convulsions,
  • Jaundice- yellowing of skin, nails, and eyes,
  • Seizures,
  • Bloody stools, 
  • Confusion and concentration difficulties. 

You will need to consult your physician for the presence of one or more of the above symptoms. Your physician will guide you with the necessary diagnostic tests and treatment.  

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What can you expect during a malaria test?

Initially, your health care specialist will check for malaria signs and symptoms with a detailed review of your medical and travel history. If the physician suspects a possible malaria infection, you may undergo a malaria blood test- blood smear test or rapid malaria diagnostic test. 

During the blood test, the lab technician will withdraw a certain amount of blood sample from the vein in the arm. The blood smear test looks for possible parasites in the blood smeared over the slide. And the rapid diagnostic tests look for proteins or antigens typically secreted by the parasites, indicating their presence. However, the blood smear test confirms the malaria diagnosis.   

Malaria test result interpretation

The turnaround time of the malaria test is usually within 24 hours of the test. The malaria test result can present one of the below possibilities. 

What if the test result is negative: If the blood smear test and the antigen tests are negative and you have malaria symptoms, your physician may order a retest. The number of parasites changes daily, and a blood test every 24 hours for 2-3 days is required to confirm a diagnosis. 

What if the test result is positive: If the blood smear tests and the antigen test turn positive, your physician will move ahead with other malaria blood tests- drug resistant test, antibody test, or molecular tests to prescribe medications depending on factors like the severity of the disease, pregnancy, and other associated conditions.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Are malaria tests associated with any risks?

Malaria tests are routine blood tests involving no major risks or side effects. However, one may observe slight pain or bruise at the site of injection (needle prick) that goes away with time. 

How do you confirm malaria?

A blood smear or rapid diagnostic test can help with an initial diagnosis of malaria. However, blood smear tests can confirm the presence of malarial parasites. 

What are the types of malarial parasites that infect humans?

Five types of malarial parasites can infect humans to cause illness. They are:

  • Plasmodium falciparum (P. falciparum)
  • Plasmodium malaria (P. malariae)
  • Plasmodium vivax (P. vivax)
  • Plasmodium ovale (P. ovale)
  • Plasmodium knowlesi (P. knowlesi)

Conclusion

Malaria is a parasite-borne disease transmitted through mosquitoes. Malaria causes symptoms that are quite similar to common flu. The malaria test price differs between cities and diagnostic labs. The approximate cost for a malaria test can range from Rs. to Rs. 1,000 based on the type of malaria test and the pathology lab. 

If you notice malaria symptoms or have travelled to regions where malaria is common, consult your health care provider for a malaria check-up and treatment. Remember, malaria can be cured or treated when detected early. Early detection can avert health complications and life-threatening conditions. 

 

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Prekshi Garg is a young, dynamic, energetic, and meritorious professional biotechnologist. She is a merit rank holder in her post-graduation and a skilled bioinformatician with great zeal to do her best in neurosciences. She is currently working in the area of Neurotranscritomics dealing with neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders. She has presented many papers at different scientific forums and is awarded ‘Representing the Institution in Scientific Events’ citation by Amity University Uttar Pradesh and Top position in Student Assistantship Program held at Amity University in addition to awards won for oral presentations in different scientific deliberations. Prekshi has published a good number of papers and book chapters during the start of her academic career itself. Her tremendous skills and knowledge make her a good blend of biotechnology and bioinformatics.

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