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 people with severe cases of cholera recover
fully in a week or so if they get medical care.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Cholera?
When someone is infected with the cholera bacteria, symptoms can appear in a few
hours or as late as 5 days later. Some people with cholera 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
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,
so you can't catch it from direct contact with another person.
When Should I Call a Doctor?
If you develop 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.
If you have a severe case of 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
do damage to internal organs.
How Is Cholera Diagnosed?
To confirm a diagnosis of cholera, doctors may take a
or vomit sample to examine 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
Sometimes doctors prescribe
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, you can greatly reduce your risk of
getting the disease by following a few simple precautions when you get there:
Boil or disinfect any water that you'll use for drinking, washing or preparing
food, making ice, making coffee or tea, or brushing your 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.
If you're planning to visit the tropics, especially an area that doesn't have good
sanitation, it's a good idea to know the signs of cholera and what to do. Taking precautions
with your food and water is the best way to avoid the disease.