Cholera – Definition
Cholera is an infectious disease that affects the intestinal tract. It is rare today in industrialized countries. However, it has caused severe epidemics in the past, and continues to be a major public health problem throughout the world in underdeveloped countries. If left untreated, it may cause death within hours.
Cholera – Causes
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.
Cholera – Risk Factors
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors 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
Cholera – Symptoms
Symptoms of cholera come on fairly 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 1 to 3 days after exposure.
Cholera – Diagnosis
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. 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.
Cholera – Treatment
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.
Cholera – Prevention
Careful Eating Habits
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.
The short-term cholera vaccine that was previously manufactured and sold in the United States is no longer available. Because it offered only brief and inconsistent immunity, this vaccine was not sufficiently effective. Oral cholera vaccines that provide up to 80% immunity and fewer side effects are now available in some countries, but are not usually recommended for travelers.