Cholera is a serious and sometimes life-threatening infection that mainly affects people in developing countries, where clean water and other sanitation measures are hard to come by. If you live in the United States, the chances of someone in your family getting cholera are slim.
But if you're planning to travel to a foreign country, especially one in the tropics, it's a good idea to know about cholera, and how to prevent it. Taking precautions with your food and water is the best way to avoid the illness.
Cholera is an intestinal infection caused the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. This bacterium produces a potent toxin that binds to the walls of the intestines. The body responds by secreting large amounts of water, causing watery diarrhea, vomiting, and subsequent dehydration as fluids and salts exit the body.
As a result, people with cholera can become dehydrated very quickly. Untreated severe dehydration can cause serious health problems like seizures and kidney failure. A person who doesn't get the proper medical treatment might even die.
The good news is, cholera is easy to treat if it's caught early. Kids who have mild to moderate cases usually get better within a week. Even people with severe cases of cholera recover fully in a week or so if they get medical care.
Cholera is mostly found in hot, tropical climates — in particular Asia, Africa, Latin America, India, and the Middle East. Although it's rare in the United States (the last outbreak was in 1911), cases can still happen. Travelers from countries where cholera is more common can bring it into the country, and some people in the U.S. have become sick from eating raw or undercooked shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico.
People get cholera from eating or drinking food or water that's been contaminated with the feces (poop) of someone who has cholera.
This is one reason why cholera is rare in countries with good sanitation systems. Things like flush toilets, sewer systems, and water treatment facilities keep poop out of the water and food supply. Cholera epidemics also sometimes happen after a disaster (like an earthquake or flood) if people are living in tent cities or other places without running water or proper sanitation systems. Less commonly, the bacteria that cause cholera are found in brackish rivers and coastal waters.
Cholera is not contagious, so you can't catch it from direct contact with another person.
When someone is infected with the cholera bacterium, symptoms can appear in a few hours or as late as 5 days later. Many kids with cholera have no signs or symptoms, but some cases can be severe and life-threatening.
Common symptoms of cholera and the dehydration it causes include:
If your child develops symptoms like these, especially after visiting an area where cholera is likely or common, call your doctor or get medical help right away. Severe dehydration can happen very quickly, so it's essential to start replacing lost fluids right away to avoid damage to internal organs.
To confirm a diagnosis of cholera, doctors may take a sample of stool or vomit or rectal swab to examine for signs of the bacteria. Rapid, dipstick-style tests are now available, which help health care providers in remote areas identify the disease more quickly and control outbreaks more effectively. All confirmed cases of cholera must be reported to local health officials.
Since severe dehydration and death can occur within hours, cholera needs to be treated immediately. Most kids recover with no long-term problems as long as they receive prompt treatment.
The goal of treatment is to replace all the fluids and salts lost through diarrhea and vomiting. For mild dehydration, a doctor may recommend giving your child an over-the-counter rehydration solution. Kids with more severe cases of cholera may need to stay in the hospital and get intravenous (IV) fluids.
Sometimes doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat cholera. The antibiotics are not as important as rehydration, but can help shorten the length of time someone is sick. They also might make cholera-related diarrhea less severe. Sometimes doctors may prescribe zinc supplements.
Anti-diarrheal medicines can actually make the symptoms of cholera worse, so if your child has cholera (or you think your child has it), do not offer them.
Some countries have cholera vaccines that can help protect people against cholera for a short while. Because cholera isn't a problem in the United States, the vaccine is not offered here.
If you're going to an area that has cholera, you can greatly reduce your family's chances of getting sick by following a few simple precautions while you're there:
Reviewed by: Rebecca L. Gill, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015
|CDC: Travelers' Health Look up vaccination requirements for travel destinations, get updates on international outbreaks, and more, searachable by country.|
|Ebola Ebola is a dangerous virus that can cause people to get very sick or even die. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Studying Abroad Do you dream of traveling to cool places, meeting interesting people, and maybe picking up a language or two? Learn about the benefits of study abroad programs.|
|First Aid: Diarrhea Diarrhea is common and usually not a sign of something serious. Find out what to do if your child has diarrhea.|
|Hand Washing Did you know that the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands? If you don't wash your hands frequently, you can pick up germs from other sources and then infect yourself.|
|Cholera Cholera is an intestinal infection that mostly affects people in tropical regions. Find out more about cholera in this article for teens.|
|Food Poisoning The germs that get into food and cause food poisoning are tiny, but can have a powerful effect on the body. Find out what to do if you get food poisoning - and how to prevent it.|
|Food Poisoning Sometimes, germs can get into food and cause food poisoning. Find out what to do if your child gets food poisoning - and how to prevent it.|
|Food Poisoning Did you ever eat something that made you feel ooky? It might have been food poisoning.|
|Malaria Malaria is a common infection in hot, tropical areas but can also occur (rarely) in temperate climates. Malaria is a leading cause of death worldwide but if diagnosed early and treated, it can be cured.|
|Why Is Hand Washing So Important? Did you know that proper hand washing is the best way to keep from getting sick? Here's how to teach this all-important habit to your kids.|
|Typhoid Fever While typhoid fever isn't common in the U.S., it can be a health threat elsewhere. Learn about this illness and how to prevent it.|
|Travel Tips It's always important to take care of your health, particularly when you're traveling. Our article will give you tips for keeping your travel experience as healthy as possible.|
|Stool Test: Bacteria Culture A stool culture helps doctors determine if there's a bacterial infection in the intestines.|
|Why Do I Need to Wash My Hands? Washing your hands is the best way to stop germs from spreading. Learn all about the best way to wash your hands in this article for kids.|
|Dengue Fever You're not at risk of this illness in the U.S., but if you live in or are traveling to a tropical country it's wise to take precautions against this virus.|
|Do My Kids Need Vaccines Before Traveling? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Staying Healthy While You Travel When you're traveling with your kids, there's a chance that someone might get sick. But early planning and smart packing can help ensure your family stays healthy and safe.|
|Ebola Although outbreaks of Ebola may occur in parts of the world, there's no reason to panic. When people with Ebola are correctly diagnosed, isolated, and cared for, the risk of passing the disease to others is low.|
|Ebola The deadly Ebola virus can make people very sick or even kill them. Ebola is contagious, but when people are properly diagnosed, isolated, and cared for, the risk of passing the disease to others is low.|
|Road Tripping Whether you're driving your friends to the beach for the day or going on vacation with your family, read these tips for surviving road trips.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.