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Malaria, Dengue & Viral Fever: How to Tell the Difference?


During all my years living in India, I've had a wide range of monsoon related-illnesses, the latest being malaria. Unfortunately, there was a huge outbreak of it in Mumbai, as a result of incessant heavy rain.

The troublesome thing is that many monsoon related illnesses share similar symptoms (such as fever and body ache). Initially, it can be difficult to know what you're suffering from. However, based on my experience, although the symptoms may be the same, there are some noticeable distinctions in the way that they occur.

  • Viral Fever -- a long lasting and intense fever, accompanied by severe chills and body ache. I had it twice in Varkala, Kerala a few years ago.  Both times, it lasted for three days, then went away as quickly as it came.
  • Dengue Fever -- a long lasting fever, plus swollen and painful joints, and a rash. After the fever, my finger and toe joints swelled and started hurting, and I got a pin-prick looking rash over my legs, arms and torso.
  • Malaria -- a short lasting, recurring fever, accompanied by chills and body ache.  The short duration and recurrence of symptoms are what really distinguish malaria from other illnesses. My fever and chills lasted around five hours at a time, but returned every second day (consistent with the parasite life cycle). It felt like the start of a flu that would mysteriously come and go.

The types and severity of both dengue fever and malaria are variable. I had mild cases of both (including P.vivax malaria, as opposed to the life threatening P.falciparum). However, when dealing with malaria, you must get it treated as soon as possible, before the parasite has a chance to affect too many red blood cells.  Treatment of uncomplicated cases is quite straightforward, and can simply consist of taking a series of tablets.

If you're concerned about the possibility of catching any of these illnesses in India, the most important thing to keep in mind is the climate. The prevalence of illness does vary every year, and from place to place in India. Malaria isn't a real issue in India during the dry winters, but outbreaks of it do occur during the monsoon, particularly when it's raining constantly. Last monsoon in Mumbai, dengue fever was more of a problem as the rain was intermittent. This year, dengue is spreading in Delhi.

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