What is cholera?

Cholera is an infectious disease caused by bacteria. You can get cholera if you eat food or drink water that is contaminated with the bacteria.

Cholera is a health problem in many developing countries. It’s mainly found in Africa, south Asia, and Latin America. It is rare in developed countries like the U.S. But there have been some outbreaks in the U.S. They have been caused by contaminated seafood that travelers have brought into the country.

The acids in your stomach and digestive tract can kill small amounts of the cholera bacteria. Because of this, most infected people will not have any symptoms. But the bacteria are still in their stool for 7 to 14 days. During that time, they can infect other people. This is especially true if they have poor hygiene habits.

What causes cholera?

The cholera bacteria are often found in water supplies made unclean because of the unsanitary disposal of stool. Cholera is rarely passed from one person to another. It is often spread by drinking water or eating food from:

  • City water supplies
  • Ice made from city water
  • Foods and drinks bought from street vendors
  • Vegetables irrigated with fresh sewage
  • Raw or improperly cooked fish and seafood taken from waters polluted with sewage

What are the symptoms of cholera?

Most people who get symptoms have a mild to moderate upset stomach. Worse cases may cause vomiting and watery diarrhea, called “rice-water stools.” These symptoms may lead to dehydration. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • A very rapid heart rate
  • Dry mucous membranes
  • Very low blood pressure
  • Muscle cramps

If untreated, severe dehydration can lead to shock and death. People with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of dying from the infection.

How is cholera diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your past health and travel history. You will also need an exam and blood tests.

How is cholera treated?

For diarrhea that is worse than normal, see a health care provider. Don’t treat it on your own. Seek medical help if diarrhea becomes severe and watery, or if vomiting occurs.

Your health care provider will figure out the best treatment for you based on:

  • How old you are
  • Your overall health and past health
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion or preference

You may need to be rehydrated with fluids. Your health care provider may prescribe antibiotics to help you get better faster.

What are the complications of cholera?

If left untreated, the diarrhea from cholera can cause severe dehydration. That can lead to shock and even death.

Can cholera be prevented?

One of the best ways to prevent cholera is to wash your hands often.

If you are traveling in an area where cholera is common, only use water that has been boiled or chemically disinfected for:

  • Drinking or making beverages such as tea or coffee
  • Brushing your teeth
  • Washing your face and hands
  • Washing fruits and vegetables
  • Washing eating utensils and food preparation equipment
  • Washing the surfaces of tins, cans, and bottles that contain food or beverages

You should also not eat or drink foods or beverages from unknown sources. Any raw food could be contaminated, including:

  • Fruits, vegetables, and salad greens
  • Unpasteurized milk and milk products
  • Raw meat
  • Shellfish
  • Any fish caught in tropical reefs rather than the open ocean

No vaccine is available in the U.S. But 2 oral shots are available abroad. At this time, no country requires the shot for entry if a person arrives from a country with the disease.

When should I call my health care provider?

Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms return or get worse, or you have new ones.

Key points about cholera

  • Cholera is an infectious disease caused by bacteria. You can get cholera if you eat or drink foods that are contaminated with the bacteria.
  • The cholera bacteria are usually found in unclean water supplies because of the unsanitary disposal of stool.
  • Cholera is mainly found in Africa, south Asia, and Latin America.
  • Cholera can cause severe diarrhea. That may make you dehydrated.
  • To prevent cholera, you should wash your hands often. Drink only boiled or disinfected water. Do not eat food from unknown sources.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.