The first symptoms of malaria, common to all the different malaria species, are nonspecific and mimic a flu-like syndrome. Although fever represents the cardinal feature, clinical findings in malaria are extremely diverse and may range in severity from mild headache to serious complications leading to death, particularly in falciparum malaria. As the progression to these complications can be rapid, any malaria patient must be assessed and treated rapidly, and frequent observations are needed to look for early signs of systemic complications.
In fact, severe malaria is a life threatening but treatable disease. The protean and nonspecific clinical findings occurring in malaria (fever, malaise, headache, myalgias, jaundice and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea) may lead physicians who see malaria infrequently to a wrong diagnosis, such as influenza (particularly during the seasonal epidemic flu), dengue, gastroenteritis, typhoid fever, viral hepatitis, encephalitis. Physicians should be aware that malaria is not a clinical diagnosis but must be diagnosed, or excluded, by performing microscopic examination of blood films. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment are then crucial to prevent morbidity and fatal outcomes. Although Plasmodium falciparum malaria is the major cause of severe malaria and death, increasing evidence has recently emerged that Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium knowlesi can also be severe and even fatal.