Cholera is an infection of the small intestine by some strains of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. Symptoms may range from none, to mild, to severe. The classic symptom is large amounts of watery diarrhea that lasts a few days. Vomiting andmuscle cramps may also occur. Diarrhea can be so severe that it leads within
hours to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. This may result in sunken eyes, cold skin, decreased skin elasticity, and wrinkling of the hands and feet. The dehydration may result in the skin turning bluish. Symptoms start two hours to five days after exposure.
Cholera is caused by a number of types of Vibrio cholerae, with some types producing more severe disease than others. It is spread mostly by water and food that has been contaminated with human feces containing the bacteria. Insufficiently cooked seafood is a common source. Humans are the only animal affected. Risk factors for the disease include poorsanitation, not enough clean drinking water, and poverty. There are concerns that rising sea levels will increase rates of disease. Cholera can be diagnosed by a stool test. A rapid dipstick test is available but is not as accurate.
Prevention involves improved sanitation and access to clean water. Cholera vaccines that are given by mouth provide reasonable protection for about six months. They have the added benefit of protecting against another type of diarrhea caused by E. coli. The primary treatment is oral rehydration therapy—the replacement of fluids with slightly sweet and salty solutions. Rice-based solutions are preferred. Zinc supplementation is useful in children. In severe cases, intravenous fluids, such as Ringer’s lactate, may be required, and antibiotics may be beneficial. Testing to see what antibiotic the cholera is susceptible to can help guide the choice.
Cholera affects an estimated 3–5 million people worldwide and causes 58,000–130,000 deaths a year as of 2010. While it is currently classified as a pandemic, it is rare in the developed world. Children are mostly affected. Cholera occurs as both outbreaks and chronically in certain areas. Areas with an ongoing risk of disease include Africa and south-east Asia. While the risk of death among those affected is usually less than 5%, it may be as high as 50% among some groups who do not have access to treatment. Historical descriptions of cholera are found as early as the 5th century BC in Sanskrit. The study of cholera by John Snow between 1849 and 1854 led to significant advances in the field of epidemiology.