Cholera

What is Cholera?

Cholera is a serious bacterial disease that infects the small intestine and causes extreme dehydration in just a couple of hours. It is caused by the bacterium vibrio cholerae, which is usually found in food or water sources that have been contaminated by feces. The disease is endemic to Southeast Asia and India—especially in areas that have poor water treatment and sanitation.

What are the Symptoms of Cholera?

Sometimes cholera can be mild and initially present no symptoms; but most of the times, symptoms will usually appear within a few hours to a few days after infection.

Symptoms include

When symptoms do appear, the most prevalent ones are smelly diarrhea—informally called a “rice-water stool” because of its appearance—and severe dehydration.

Other symptoms include low blood pressure, an increased heart rate, vomiting, skin wrinkles, leg cramps, shock, and dry mouth.

Cholera Causes

Cholera is caused by the vibrio cholera bacteria. It is spread by consumption of food or water that has been contaminated with feces that contains the bacteria.

Common sources of contaminated food and water include:

  • Municipal water supplies that have not been properly treated
  • Food or drinks from street vendors that have not employed proper hygiene practices, like washing hands regularly
  • Vegetables that have been grown with contaminated water
  • Raw or undercooked fish that was caught in sewage-contaminated water

Casual contact with a person infected with cholera is not enough to catch it. Contact with the feces of a person with cholera or food or water that has come into contact with feces puts you at risk.

People living in areas where adequate water treatment methods are not employed, proper hygiene practices are not used, and with poor sanitation systems are much more likely to be affected by cholera.

How is Cholera Treated?

The most important treatment for cholera is replacing electrolyte and fluids lost through diarrhea. This fluid and salt replacement can be taken orally or through an IV. A person may also take antibiotics to reduce the length and severity of the infection.

If vomiting and diarrhea are severe enough, then a person will need to go to the hospital right away to stay for treatment and observation. Once a person is successfully treated for cholera, he or she will need to avoid unsanitary conditions since those infected by cholera can get it again if they are exposed to the bacteria.

Cholera Prevention

Cholera is most prevalent in developing nations where the infrastructure for public sanitation and water treatment facilities is either underdeveloped or nonexistent. Most people who visit these areas are not at risk, especially if they are taking proper precautions to prevent contact with it.

The Center for Disease Control recommends taking the following precautions against contact with cholera:

  • Only drinking bottled water, boiled water, or chemically treated water (and making sure water bottles have not been tampered with before opening)
  • When drinking other beverages, making sure they are bottled or canned and still properly sealed before consuming
  • Washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer that is composed of at least 60% alcohol
  • Using only bottled, boiled, or treated water to wash dishes, brush teeth, wash hands, etc
  • Only eating packaged foods or foods that are served hot and fresh
  • Disposing of feces in a way that is sanitary and does not bring it into contact with food or water supplies.

While there are vaccines that can be obtained, they are not recommended for most people for two reasons. One is because the vaccines are fairly new and not working in as many as half of those vaccinated. The other is because most people are not traveling to areas where cholera epidemics are active.

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Last Reviewed:
October 01, 2016
Last Updated:
December 05, 2017