Dengue vs Malaria: How to Differentiate Between the Two?
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Many people nowadays are either suffering from malaria or dengue. They are acute, chronic and infectious diseases that may even cause death. Both dengue and malaria are also caused by mosquito. However, did you know that the cause and treatment are completely different? It is imperative that you figure out which of the two diseases you have quickly if you suspect that you have been infected. 

But how do you differentiate between dengue and malaria? Read this article and if you have any symptoms, see your doctor immediately. 

What is dengue?

Dengue fever is also known as break bone fever as it sometimes causes severe muscle and joint pain. The aches could be so bad that it feels like the bones are breaking. Symptoms of fever can vary from mild to severe. 

It is caused by the bite of a female Aedes Mosquito which causes a viral infection. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus is passed on to humans through the bite of a female Aedes mosquito only. This mosquito only acquires the virus while feeding on the blood of an infected person.

Severe dengue, also previously known as dengue haemorrhagic fever, was first recognized in the Philippines and Thailand during the 1950s epidemics. Today, it affects most Asian and Latin American countries due to the weather. 

Over the last 50 years, the incidence of dengue has increased 30-fold. 

The dengue virus (DEN) comprises four distinct types (DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3 and DEN-4). “Asian” types (DEN-2 and DEN-3) are frequently associated with a more severe disease which accompanies secondary dengue infections.  

Once infected, humans will become the main carriers of the virus. This will in turn, serve as a source for uninfected mosquitoes. 

Dengue will circulate in the blood of a human being for 2 to 7 days. It is likely that the said human will develop a fever. Humans who are already infected with dengue can transmit the infection via an Aedes mosquito at about 4 to 5 days, up to a maximum of 12 days. 

However, in humans, it is possible to recover from one dengue virus and that alone provides immunity against that particular type of dengue. This does not mean that you are completely safe if you’ve had dengue. The immunity confers only partial protection against subsequent infections by the other three types of the virus. 

Symptoms of dengue

If a person is infected by dengue, it is likely that he will develop flu-like symptoms. There is not much difference between the infectivity towards children and adults as it could potentially be fatal for both. 

Clinical symptoms of dengue may vary according to the age of a patient. 

You should vary of dengue when a high fever of 40°C is accompanied by two of the following symptoms: 

  • Severe headache
  • Pain behind the eyes
  • Nausea
  • Swollen glands
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Rash

Symptoms usually last for 2 to 7 days after an incubation period of 4 to 10 days after the bite from an infected mosquito. 

Severe dengue could be fatal and warning signs to look out for occur 3 to 7 days after the first symptoms. This includes:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Rapid breathing
  • Bleeding gums
  • Blood in vomit
  • Fatigue

Head to the hospital immediately for proper medical care if this occurs as the next 24 to 48 hours can be lethal and to avoid death.

What is malaria?

Derived from the Italian word “bad air”, it was originally thought that the swamp fumes in Rome were the cause of malaria because outbreaks then were very common.

Malaria is an infectious disease which is caused by an Anopheles Mosquito. The mosquito usually bites a person or animal that is already infected with this disease. It then bites another person, thus spreading the disease. 

Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium. It has an incubation period of 7 days or longer. 

Children under the age of 5 are the most vulnerable if affected by malaria. In 2018, they accounted for 67 per cent of all malaria deaths worldwide. 

Transmission of malaria is more intense in places where the mosquito lifespan is longer. Approximately 90 per cent of the world’s malaria cases are in Africa as mosquitoes over there have a long lifespan due to the climate.

In many cases, the transmission is seasonal. The peak of it would be during and just after a rainy season. This is because still water allows for more breeding of mosquitoes. 

After years of exposure, some adults develop partial immunity and are not completely protected.  

Young children, pregnant women, the elderly and travellers are particularly at risk of this disease. The most severe form is caused by P. falciparum. If present in non-immune pregnant travellers, it increases the risk of maternal death, miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death. 

Other forms of human malaria caused by other Plasmodium species are rarely life-threatening. However, cases of severe P. vivax malaria have been reported among populations living in tropical countries and can remain dormant in the liver. 

Humans can also be infected with a “monkey malaria” parasite known as P. knowlesi. Monkeys are the host of this infection and mosquitoes are the vectors. Most of this strain is found in parts of Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. 

Symptoms of Malaria

Malaria will generally exhibit symptoms such as:

  • Fever and chills
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Muscle pain and fatigue

You may also look out for further escalation of Malaria. When infected, red blood cells will die very quickly. The spleen often cannot keep up with the demand of red blood cells which will then lead to organ failure.

To lookout for changes in your spleen, watch out for pain in the upper left abdomen, feeling full without eating and frequent infections of fatigue. 

It is most likely Malaria fever if your fever rapidly rises above 40°C, followed by chills and sweating. 

Common symptoms between dengue and malaria

Generally, dengue and malaria have a few symptoms in common. It is easy to be confused between dengue and malaria as symptoms may be similar. Among these early onset of symptoms are:-

  • Headaches
  • Body weakness
  • Muscle pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhoea

If you have two or more of the symptoms above, you may want to visit your local doctor or get your blood tested to see which of the diseases you have and seek proper treatment.

Keep in mind though, that both malaria and dengue will only infect your body through a mosquito so if you do not have any bites within the week, it is unlikely that it is these diseases though you experience the symptoms. Visit your doctor anyway. 

Both diseases, if escalated, may result in death. 

Main difference between dengue and malaria

The main difference between these two diseases is how humans who have been infected are treated. 

Most drugs used to treat these two diseases are made to target the parasites in your blood that have been formed. 

People with severe cases of malaria may require a continuous intravenous infusion. People with dengue on the other hand, cannot be completely cured but symptoms can be controlled with a combination of medicine and intravenous infusion. 

Malaria is an entirely preventable and treatable disease. Medical professionals just have to ensure that there is rapid and full elimination of the parasite from your blood in order to prevent any progression of the disease. 

There is, unfortunately, no specific treatment for dengue fever. Patients need to rest and drink plenty of fluids. Fever can be lowered with the intake of paracetamol. It is key that medical professionals maintain a patient’s circulating fluid volume in order to save their lives. 

To further differentiate the two, there are a few more differences between the symptoms which are: 

1. Incubation period of fever

Dengue: 4 to 5 days after a mosquito bite

Malaria: 10 – 15 days incubation period

2. Duration of fever

Dengue: Generally lasts longer, appears for 2-3 days then disappears for some time before rising again worse than before.

Malaria: Shorter duration, comes in stages of extreme cold, sweating then extreme cold again. 

3. Platelets and Red Blood Counts

Dengue: Massive drop in blood platelet count

Malaria: Infected red blood cells


Prevention is always better than cure, especially with something preventable like a mosquito bite. Ensure you do not get bitten by a mosquito in order to ensure you do not get either dengue or malaria. 

Although they share many differences, they also share many similarities so identifying which one you have, after being bitten, is essential to receiving the right treatment. Do not delay getting medical help in either cases as they can both be potentially fatal.

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