Cholera is a bacterial infection of the intestines. The good news is, cholera
is easy to treat if it's caught early. People who have mild to moderate cases usually
get better within a week. Even those with severe cases recover fully in a week or
so if they get medical care.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Cholera?
When someone is infected with cholera bacteria, symptoms can appear in a few hours
or as late as 5 days later. Some people have no signs or symptoms, but some cases
are severe and can be life-threatening.
Common symptoms of cholera and the dehydration
it causes include:
watery, pale-colored diarrhea, often in large amounts
nausea and vomiting
cramps, particularly in the abdomen and legs
irritability, lack of energy, or unusual sleepiness
glassy or sunken eyes
dry mouth and extreme thirst
dry, shriveled skin
low urine (pee) output and a lack of tears
irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and low blood pressure
Cholera can cause watery diarrhea and vomiting, making people who have it get dehydrated
quickly. When dehydration is severe, it can cause serious health problems if
it's not treated. It can even cause seizures and kidney failure. People who don't
get the proper medical treatment may even die.
What Causes Cholera?
People get it from drinking water or eating food that's contaminated with a type
of bacteria called Vibrio cholerae.
Cholera is mostly found in the tropics — in particular Asia, Africa, Latin
America, India, and the Middle East. It's rare in the United States, but people can
still get it. People who travel from countries where the infection is more common
can bring cholera into the U.S. Some people in the U.S. have become sick from eating
raw and undercooked shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico.
How Do People Get It?
People get cholera from eating or drinking food or water that's been contaminated
with the feces (poop) of someone who has cholera. This is one reason why cholera is
rare in countries with good sanitation systems. Things like flush toilets, sewer systems,
and water treatment facilities keep poop out of the water and food supply.
But for people living in places without good sanitation, cholera is more of a risk.
Cholera epidemics can also sometimes happen after a disaster (like an earthquake or
flood) if people are living in tent cities or other places without running water or
proper sanitation systems.
Cholera is not contagious, and rarely spreads through direct contact with another
When Should I Call the Doctor?
If your child develops symptoms of cholera, especially after visiting an area where
the disease is common, call your doctor or get medical help right away. Severe dehydration
can happen very quickly, so it's essential to start replacing lost fluids right away.
For severe diarrhea or vomiting, call a doctor immediately, even if you're
pretty sure it's not cholera. Dehydration is a serious medical condition
regardless of the cause, and it needs to be treated quickly before it can damage internal
How Is Cholera Diagnosed?
To confirm a diagnosis of cholera, doctors may take a stool sample or vomit
sample to check for signs of the bacteria.
How Is Cholera Treated?
Cholera needs immediate treatment because severe dehydration can happen
within hours. Fortunately, treatment is simple and very effective. Very few
people who get treatment die.
The goal of cholera treatment is to replace all the fluids and electrolytes (salts)
lost through diarrhea and vomiting. For mild dehydration, a doctor may recommend drinking
an over-the-counter rehydration solution. People with more severe cases of cholera
may need to stay in the hospital and get intravenous (IV) fluids.
Sometimes doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat cholera. The antibiotics are not
as important as rehydrating, but they can help shorten the length of time a person
is sick. They also might make cholera-related diarrhea less severe. Sometimes doctors
also prescribe zinc supplements.
Anti-diarrheal medicines can actually make the symptoms of cholera worse, so people
who think they may have cholera should avoid taking them.
Can Cholera Be Prevented?
In some areas cholera vaccines are given to help protect people against cholera
for a short while. Because cholera isn't a problem in the United States, the vaccine
is not offered here.
If you're going to an area that has cholera, protect your family from the disease
by following a few simple precautions:
Boil or disinfect any water that you'll use for drinking, washing or preparing
food, making ice, making coffee or tea, or brushing teeth. Choose bottled
water or other drinks that come in sealed cans or bottles. Be sure to wipe the outside
of the can or bottle before you drink from it, though. Avoid tap water, fountain drinks,
and drinks with ice cubes.
Fully cook all food, especially seafood. Avoid food from street
vendors. Instead, eat packaged foods and meals that are freshly cooked and served
hot. Avoid sushi and any other raw or partly cooked seafood.
Avoid raw vegetables, including salads, and fruits that have already been
peeled or cannot be peeled like grapes and berries. Bananas, avocados, and
oranges make better choices.
Dairy foods are often contaminated, so be careful with things like ice
cream, milk, and cheese. Eat only pasteurized dairy and be sure dairy foods
are refrigerated and kept cold.
Wash your hands well and often with soap and clean water, especially after
you use the bathroom or before you prepare food. If no soap and water are
available, use a hand cleaner that's at least 60% alcohol.