Cholera is a serious bacterial
disease that usually causes severe diarrhea and dehydration. The disease is typically
spread through contaminated water. In severe cases, immediate treatment is
necessary because death can occur within hours. This can happen even if you
were healthy before you caught it.
Modern sewage and water treatment have
effectively eliminated cholera in most countries. It’s still a problem in
countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, India, and the Middle East. Countries
affected by war, poverty, and natural disasters have the greatest risk for a
cholera outbreak. That’s because these conditions tend to force people to live
in crowded areas without proper sanitation.
Causes of Cholera
Cholera is caused by bacteria
called Vibrio cholerae.
The disease’s deadly effects are the result of a strong toxin known as CTX that
is produced by these bacteria in your small intestine. CTX interferes with the
normal flow of sodium and chloride when it binds to your intestinal walls. When
the bacteria attaches to the small intestine’s walls, your body begins to
secrete large amounts of water that lead to diarrhea and rapid loss of fluids
Contaminated water supplies are the
primary source of cholera infection. Uncooked fruits, vegetables, and other
foods can also contain the bacteria that cause cholera.
Cholera is not usually passed from person
to person through casual contact.
Are You at Risk?
Anyone can become sick with cholera,
but a few factors may increase your risk. These risk factors also increase the
likelihood that you’ll have a severe case. These include:
- unclean conditions
(such as poor sanitation and contaminated water)
- low levels of
stomach acid (cholera bacteria cannot live in highly acidic environments)
- sick household
- type O blood
(it’s not clear why this is true, but more people with this blood type seem to
be at risk for cholera)
- eating raw
shellfish (if the shellfish live in dirty waters where the cholera bacteria
live, there is greater chance of becoming ill)
Symptoms of Cholera
The majority of people exposed to
cholera never become ill. In fact, in most cases, you may never know you’ve
been exposed. Once you’re infected, you’ll continue to shed cholera bacteria in
your stools for seven to 14 days. Cholera usually causes mild to moderate
diarrhea, like other illnesses.
One in 10 people who are infected will
develop typical symptoms within two to three days after infection.
Common symptoms of cholera include:
- sudden onset
- mild to severe
The dehydration caused by cholera is
usually severe and can cause tiredness, moodiness, sunken eyes, dry mouth,
shriveled skin, extreme thirst, reduced urine output, irregular heartbeat, and
low blood pressure.
Dehydration may lead to loss of
minerals in your blood. This can lead to an electrolyte imbalance. The first
sign of an electrolyte imbalance is severe muscle cramps. An electrolyte
imbalance can eventually lead to shock.
Children usually have the same cholera
symptoms as adults. Children may also experience the following:
Cholera rarely occurs in first world
nations. If you follow proper food safety practices, even in affected areas,
the risk of infection is minor. Still, cholera continues to occur worldwide. If
you develop severe diarrhea after visiting an area with a high rate of cholera,
you should see a doctor.
Diagnosing and Treating
If you have symptoms of cholera, you
should contact your doctor. A doctor can confirm that you have cholera by
identifying bacteria in a stool sample.
Common methods for treating cholera
These treatments add to the liquid in
the body and rehydrate it. They also help reduce the length of time you have
Cholera can be fatal. In severe cases,
rapid loss of fluids and electrolytes can cause death in as little as two or
three hours. Even in typical cases, if cholera is left untreated, people can
die of dehydration and shock in as little as 18 hours.
Shock and severe diarrhea are the most
serious complications of cholera. However, other problems may occur, such as:
- low blood
- low potassium
- kidney failure
If you’re traveling to an area where
cholera is common, your chances of catching the disease are still low if you:
- wash your
- drink only
bottled or boiled water
- avoid raw food
- avoid dairy
- eat raw fruits
and vegetables that you can peel yourself
Since cholera vaccines don’t work very
well and most people have a slim chance of catching cholera, your doctor is not
likely to provide you with a vaccination. If you’ve already had the vaccine and
are going to be in a country where cholera is a threat, you may need a second
dose or booster of the vaccine.