Also called: Cholera Infection, Cholera Disease, Vibrio Cholerae Infection
Vikram Tarugu, M.D., AGA, ACG
Cholera is an illness caused by infection with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. Most people contract cholera from ingesting water contaminated with feces. The disease itself is usually highly treatable. However, left untreated it quickly can become fatal.
In addition to contaminated drinking water, other sources of cholera include eating raw shellfish, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables, and grains (e.g., rice, millet) that are cooked and allowed to remain at room temperature for several hours.
In most cases, people infected with cholera do not experience symptoms or have only minor symptoms. However, about 1 in 20 patients experience more significant problems. Profuse, watery diarrhea and extended periods of vomiting are the main symptoms associated with severe cholera. The diarrhea and vomiting can rid the body of up to a quart or nearly a liter of fluid per hour. This rapid loss of fluids can lead to dehydration and death within hours.
The only sure way to definitively diagnose cholera is to identify the bacteria in a stool sample. However, because cholera progresses quickly, a physician is likely to begin treatment before the results of a patient’s stool test are known.
Although cholera can be life threatening, it responds well to oral rehydration therapy. Less than 1 percent of cholera patients die after receiving prompt rehydration treatment, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cholera is common in many parts of the world, especially the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. However, advanced water and sanitation systems have made cholera rare in the United States and other countries of the developed world. The risk of contracting cholera is very low for Americans. Even people who travel to developing countries have little risk of becoming infected so long as they follow some basic precautions while they are in those countries. It is especially important not to drink tap water in these countries unless it has been boiled for two to three minutes or treated with chlorine or iodine.