Cholera Definition

An illness resulting from infection with the bacterium vibrio cholerae. The bacteria release a toxin in the small intestine that disrupts the electrolyte balance, drawing vast amounts of water into the small intestine and causing sudden, profuse diarrhea. The diarrhea in turn causes severe dehydration. The incubation period (time from exposure to illness) is a few hours to a few days.

Causes of Cholera

Cholera nearly always occurs in conditions of poor sanitation and is endemic (constantly present) in many areas of the world where community sanitation is chronically substandard.

Infection results from drinking water contaminated with V. cholerae, eating raw shellfish harvested from contaminated water, or eating uncooked foods rinsed with contaminated water.

Blood Type and Cholera Susceptibility

For reasons researchers do not understand, people who have blood type O have twice the likelihood of contracting cholera than others, and people who have blood type AB seldom become infected.

Though the profuse, watery diarrhea of cholera has a characteristic appearance and smell, the doctor may perform a stool culture to confirm the diagnosis. Treatment is oral rehydration solution (ORS) to replace the massive loss of fluid that occurs with the diarrhea, which can exceed a quart an hour.

Doctors may prescribe tetracycline to shorten the course of illness when symptoms are especially severe, though most people recover with appropriate rehydration.

Preventive measures against Cholera

Cholera is rare in the United States, though people who travel to parts of the world where cholera is endemic are at risk for infection. Preventive measures include frequent hand washing; drinking only bottled beverages or water purified through boiling, chlorination, or iodinization; and avoiding raw foods.

See also DRINKING WATER STANDARDS; WATERBORNE ILLNESSES.

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