Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that causes a large amount of watery diarrhea.
Cholera is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. These bacteria release a toxin that causes an increased amount of water to be released from cells that line the intestines. The increase in water produces severe diarrhea.
People get the infection from eating or drinking food or water containing the cholera germ. Living in or traveling to areas where there is cholera raises the risk of getting it.
Cholera occurs in places with a lack of water treatment or sewage treatment, crowding, war, and famine. Common locations for cholera include:
The goal of treatment is to replace fluid and salts that are lost through diarrhea. Diarrhea and fluid loss can be fast and extreme. It can be hard to replace lost fluids.
Depending on your condition, you may be given fluids by mouth or through a vein (intravenous, or IV). Antibiotics may shorten the time you feel ill.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a solution that helps restore fluids. It is cheaper and easier to use than the typical IV fluid. This solution is now being used around the world.
Severe dehydration can cause death. Most people will make a full recovery when they are given enough fluids.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you develop severe watery diarrhea. Also call if you have signs of dehydration, including:
Reduced or no urine
Unusual sleepiness or tiredness
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend cholera vaccines for most travelers. (This vaccine is not available in the United States.)
Travelers should always be careful when eating food and drinking water, even if they are vaccinated.
When outbreaks of cholera occur, efforts should be made to establish clean water, food, and sanitation. Vaccination is not very effective in managing outbreaks.
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Giannella RA. Infectious enteritis and proctocolitis and bacterial food poisoning. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 107.
Semrad CE. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 142.
Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.