Malaria Tests

Malaria Tests: Basics, Preparation, Procedure and Risks

Malaria is a serious tropical disease caused by a parasite. To diagnose this infection, blood tests are performed to look for the malaria parasite and diagnose the specific type of malaria. Knowing the type of malaria helps in selecting the proper medications. Malaria tests can also be used for screening people who have been exposed but are not showing any symptoms. It is important to detect the infection early as it can be life-threatening if left untreated.

Why is a Malaria Test Done?

When a person shows symptoms of malaria, the following tests may be done:

  • Complete blood count (CBC) to check for anemia or low platelet count.
  • Blood smear to look directly for the malaria parasites in red blood cells.
  • Malaria antigen tests to detect a certain protein that is released by the malaria parasite.
  • Malaria blood culture to identify the type of malaria parasite.
  • Genetic test to distinguish between the different species of malaria parasites.

Preparation for Malaria Tests

Most malaria tests can be done without any special preparation. However, if a malaria culture is ordered, the blood sample should be obtained on the same day that the person first becomes ill and before any treatment is started. Sound or very cold air may damage a malaria blood sample.

Procedure for Malaria Tests

A blood sample is usually taken by a healthcare professional from a vein located on the inside of the elbow or the back of the hand. The sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis. The sample may be examined right away, or it may be stained with a special dye called Giemsa to make the parasites more visible.

Types of Malaria Tests

The following tests may be used to diagnose malaria:

  • Complete blood count (CBC) – The count includes levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Malaria can cause abnormalities in these values.
  • Blood smear – The blood smear, also called thin film, looks for parasites in the red blood cells.
  • Malaria antigen tests – These tests detect malaria antigen, a certain protein released by the malaria parasite. These tests are very sensitive and may detect the presence of malaria even before symptoms occur.
  • Malaria blood culture – This test looks for the type of malaria parasite and is used to confirm the diagnosis or to differentiate between different species of malaria.
  • Genetic test – This test uses a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to rapidly and accurately determine the type of malaria parasite. It can also detect very small amounts of the parasite.

Risks of Malaria Tests

Risks associated with malaria tests are minimal, but may include swelling, bruising, or infection at the site where the needle is inserted. These risks are very rare and usually minor.

When is Malaria Test Done?

Malaria tests are usually done when a person has been exposed to malaria and is showing symptoms of the infection. It is important to detect the infection as soon as possible, as delay or non-treatment of malaria can lead to serious, even life-threatening complications.