At WiseGEEK, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
Cholera, an infection caused by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium, often causes only mild illness in patients, although infected patients with few symptoms can still pass the bacterium on to others. Between five and 10% of people infected develop more severe symptoms of cholera which can lead to death if the patient is not treated. Fortunately, this disease can be prevented with some basic hygiene, and vaccines are also available in some regions of the world where cholera is endemic.
People usually ingest the bacteria which cause this disease by consuming poorly sanitized water or food which has been handled by someone with cholera. It takes 24 to 48 hours for the bacteria to multiply in the gut, and then the symptoms of cholera emerge. During active cholera infection, the bacteria will be shed in the patient's stool, and the patient can spread infection to other people.
The hallmark of cholera is persistent watery diarrhea. In severe cases, the diarrhea turns gray and cloudy, and is often described as having a “rice water” appearance. In addition, patients can develop leg cramps and vomiting. If the cholera is allowed to persist, the symptoms of cholera become more extreme as the patient starts to experience dehydration. The patient will develop excessive thirst, produce less urine, have a rapid heart rate, and eventually fall into a coma and die. Fever is not associated with cholera.
When people in areas where cholera is common recognize the signs and symptoms of cholera, they should seek medical attention as quickly as possible. The doctor will rehydrate the patient with oral fluids and a fluid drip, and the doctor can administer antibiotics to kill the bacteria. The longer the patient's case of cholera is allowed to persist, the more severe the potential complications for the patient, including issues like kidney failure.
The chance of contracting cholera can be reduced by using water which has been properly treated or boiled immediately before use, washing hands regularly, and using good hygiene when preparing food. Oral vaccines which confer some resistance to cholera are also available in some areas. People should remember that it is possible to be infected with cholera but to have only mild or nonexistent symptoms, and in areas where cholera is endemic, anyone could be carrying the bacteria, whether or not he or she is displaying the symptoms of cholera. Travelers should be especially careful about traveling in regions with endemic cholera.