Cholera is an infectious disease that affects the intestinal tract. It is rare today in developed countries. However, it has caused severe epidemics in the past. It continues to be a major public health problem throughout the world in underdeveloped countries. If left untreated, it may cause death within hours.
Cholera is caused by the bacterium
Vibrio cholera. This bacterium secretes a toxin that causes rapid loss of fluids from the small intestines. Cholera is spread by ingesting food or water contaminated by fecal waste. It is common in countries that lack adequate sewage disposal.
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Factors that increase your risk of getting cholera include:
- Eating contaminated food or fluids
- Eating raw or undercooked shellfish
- Living or traveling in areas where cholera is present
- Having blood group O—nine-fold increase in risk
- Having a compromised immune system
- Having low levels of stomach acid
Symptoms of cholera begin quickly and can be severe. They include:
- Sudden onset of painless, watery diarrhea without blood or pus
- Muscle cramps
The severity of symptoms ranges from mild, short-lived diarrhea to shock and death due to extreme fluid loss. Most symptoms occur one to three days after exposure.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. It is important to tell your doctor about any recent travel to areas where cholera is common. If cholera is suspected, stool and blood samples will be tested.
The first priority in treating cholera is to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through
diarrhea. In severe cases, uncorrected dehydration can be fatal. Hydration solutions can be given orally or through an IV.
Antibiotic medications may help shorten the course of the disease. They may also be given to the people you live with to prevent them from becoming ill.
You can prevent cholera by avoiding contaminated food and fluids in areas where cholera occurs. Currently, these areas include parts of these countries and continents:
- South America
- Central America
When traveling in these areas, you are advised to:
- Eat only well-cooked foods that are served hot
- Avoid all raw or undercooked shellfish
- Avoid salads
- Avoid raw vegetables that you have not peeled yourself
- Carry oral rehydration solution (ORS) and know how to use it if you develop severe diarrhea
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. Updated May 3, 2012. Accessed January 7, 2013.
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Last reviewed November 2012 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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