Many people have heard of cholera but are not familiar with exactly what it is. Though it is best known as a 19th-century illness, the condition still occurs around the world. Cholera is a condition that can happen in any country at any time and often appears as an epidemic. It spreads rapidly and can cause severe sickness and even death within just a few hours. There are various causes and treatments of cholera, but prevention is the best scenario.
What is Cholera?
Cholera is an infection of the intestine caused by a toxigenic bacterium known as Vibrio cholerae. Some people show no symptoms when infected, while others must seek medical treatment right away. One out of ten people with cholera will have severe, watery diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps in the legs. The rapid loss of fluids can lead to dehydration and shock. If not treated immediately, a person can die within a matter of hours.
Where is Cholera Found?
Cases of cholera occur most often in underdeveloped countries. Poor hygiene and unclean conditions are often the culprits. Cholera bacteria reside in water or food that has been contaminated by the feces of a person with cholera. For this reason, most cases appear in places with inadequate water treatment and bad sanitation. It is also possible (but rarer) to find the bacterium in coastal waters and brackish rivers. Several Americans have been infected by eating raw shellfish caught in the Gulf of Mexico, for example.
What Causes Cholera?
As previously stated, a bacterium causes cholera. An infection can happen if someone preparing food does not wash their hands after using the bathroom, or if the water is not treated properly to remove bacteria and other germs. For this reason, cholera often becomes an epidemic, as it is common for many people to get their food and drinking water from the same places.
How is Cholera Spread?
Because a cholera infection requires ingestion of infected food or water, it is not likely for the illness to spread from person to person. Casual contact with an infected person is usually not enough to contract the illness oneself. Instead, it spreads rapidly when many people drink from the same contaminated water source or eat from the same compromised restaurant. For this reason, the illness can quickly reach epidemic proportions.
When do Cholera Symptoms Appear?
In most cases, symptoms of cholera (if they appear at all) show themselves within hours or five days of exposure to the bacterium. Most symptoms, however, begin to appear within two to three days of exposure. The sooner one receives treatment, the better chance they have of full recovery. If one suspects a cholera infection, they should seek medical treatment immediately.
How is Cholera Diagnosed?
Only a doctor can definitively diagnose cholera. When a patient has the symptoms of cholera, the doctor will perform tests including a stool sample or a rectal swab. Lab technicians will examine the samples, looking specifically for the cholera bacterium. If the tests come back positive, the doctor will inform the patient of his or her diagnosis, and begin treatment.
Treatment for Cholera
Luckily for those who contract cholera, the treatment for this illness is relatively simple. Immediate administration of an oral rehydration solution (ORS) can bring the infection to a quick end and reverse the loss of fluids. A medical professional dissolves the ORS in one liter of clean, fresh water. The infected person should drink up to six of these on the first day of the illness to combat dehydration. People with more advanced dehydration and shock symptoms may require IV fluids and antibiotics to reduce diarrhea and stop the infection.
How to Prevent Cholera Globally
The best treatment for cholera is a proactive one. Preventing cholera is better than having to treat it later, so it is important to do what you can, when you have control over the situation, to ensure your living conditions are hygienic. The best long-term solution for cholera is a global social one: providing safe drinking water, even in underdeveloped countries. Improving the environment means less risk of illness. Careful surveillance of water sources can also help because this lets people know when the bacteria is present in the water.
Preventing Cholera When You Travel
Travelers can lessen their risk of contracting cholera in several easy ways. They should drink only bottled, boiled, or treated water when visiting or living in a country where cholera is a risk. Frequent hand-washing is also key. If soap and clean water are not available, hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol is an option. One should never eat raw or undercooked food, and should instead eat freshly prepared, properly heated, or even packaged foods when traveling.
What is the Risk of Contracting Cholera in the US?
In the 1800s, cholera was widespread, even in America. Thankfully, though, modern sewer systems and sewage treatment plants have eliminated this risk. It is still possible for Americans to get cholera from undercooked or raw shellfish caught in other places, but this is rare. Americans can also bring back the bacterium after visiting places where cholera is epidemic, such as certain parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This can be prevented by proper food care and hand-washing, however.