Cholera is an acute infection of the intestines caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with the vibrio cholerae bacterium. It is a highly infectious disease.

Vibrio cholerae has a short incubation period, lasting from under one day to five days, and produces an enterotoxin (a type of toxin that targets the intestines) that causes a severe watery diarrhoea and, in most cases, vomiting that can lead to dehydration. Dehydration is a life-threatening condition that should be treated promptly.

The vibrio cholerae bacterium is usually found in food or water contaminated by the faecal matter from a person who already has the infection.

What are its symptoms?

Cholera symptoms can begin a few hours or up to five days after infection. Symptoms include:

  • Severe, watery diarrhoea
  • Vomiting

The degree of severity of the diarrhoea and vomiting can lead to dehydration, which may be life threatening. Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Loss of elasticity in the skin
  • Drying of the mucous membranes, that is, inside of the mouth, throat, nose and eyelids
  • Low blood pressure
  • Thirst
  • Muscle cramping

How is it diagnosed?

If you develop severe, watery diarrhoea and vomiting, particularly after eating raw shellfish or during travels to an area where cholera is endemic, seek medical attention immediately. The presence of symptoms during a cholera outbreak or epidemic would be a strong indication of this infectious disease.

Stool samples may be taken and viewed under a microscope for confirmation.

What are your treatment options?

Cholera is highly treatable, but because dehydration can occur very quickly and because it is so dangerous, it’s very important to get help immediately. 

Rehydration is the standard cholera treatment. Depending on its severity, hydrating solutions will be administered orally or intravenously to replace lost fluids and salts.

Because cholera is caused by bacteria, antibiotics can be administered in extreme cases. These can reduce the duration of the diarrhoea and thereby the excretion of the bacteria, helping to prevent the spread of the disease.

Can it be prevented?

Prevention precautions are usually recommended if you’re travelling to an area where cholera is endemic or where there is an outbreak of cholera. 

To protect yourself and your family against cholera, the following safety precautions are recommended:

  • Use water that has been boiled or chemically disinfected, or bottled water, for drinking purposes, preparing food, making ice, brushing your teeth, washing your face and hands, washing crockery and cutlery, and washing fruit and vegetables.
  • Avoid raw foods, including unpeeled fruit and vegetables, unpasterised milk and milk products, and raw or undercooked shellfish.
  • Wipe the outside of cans or bottles containing food and drinks.
  • Eat food that is completely cooked and hot.
The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in December 2015