What Is Cholera?
Cholera is an acute (sudden, short-term) diarrheal intestinal infection caused by the bacteriaVibrio cholerae.
Although reported cases of cholera number in the low hundreds of thousands each year, most estimates place the actual worldwide prevalence much higher, according to a 2012 report in theBulletin of the World Health Organization.
Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2.8 million cases of cholera (with a possible range of 1.2 to 4.3 million cases) occur annually in endemic countries, or those in which cholera is regularly found.
The illness kills about 91,000 (possible range of 28,000 to 142,000) people each year.
Vibrio choleraeis a type of bacteria that naturally lives in brackish and estuarine waters — areas in which the water is slightly salty.
Two serotypes, or strains, ofV.choleraecause outbreaks of cholera: O1 and O139.
While inside a person's body, these strains release the cholera toxin, which causes cells that line the intestine to release increased amounts of water.
Other serotypes — collectively known as non-O1 and non-O139V. cholerae— can cause less severe diarrhea than cholera, but don't result in epidemics.
How Do You Get Cholera?
You can get O1 or O139 bacteria in your system by eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with them. The bacteria infect the intestines and reproduce in the body.
A person infected with the bacteria can cause a one-million-fold increase inV. choleraenumbers in the environment through a single diarrheal episode, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Because of this route of transmission, cholera is most likely to be found in places with poor water treatment, sanitation, and hygiene practices, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although there are no other animals besides humans in which the bacteria can reproduce and spread,V. choleraefrequently attach to the shells of crabs, shrimps, and other shellfish.
Raw and undercooked shellfish have previously been sources of cholera infections in the United States.
Cholera Symptoms and Complications
V. choleraeincubates between 2 hours and 5 days before causing symptoms, according to the WHO.
Most of the time, symptoms appear within 2 to 3 days of exposure to the bacteria, according to the CDC.
About 80 percent of people with cholera don't suffer from any symptoms, and the disease resolves on its own. But they can still spread the bacteria throughout the environment, according to the WHO.
Out of the people who do develop symptoms, about 80 percent only experience a mild form of the disease.
The other 20 percent of people with cholera symptoms experience severe diarrhea, vomiting, and leg cramps.
Other symptoms of cholera include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Rapid pulse
- Unusual sleepiness
- Excessive thirst, lack of tears, and low urine output
- Dry skin, dry mucous membrane (such as inside the nose or eyelids), and dry mouth
In people with severe cholera, rapid fluid loss can cause dehydration, septic shock, and even death — sometimes within a matter of a few hours.
Other complications can include low blood sugar, low potassium levels, and kidney failure.
Cholera is diagnosed using stool samples, which are analyzed in a laboratory.
Treatment for the infection focuses on restoring fluids and salts lost through diarrhea (or vomiting).
This fluid replacement is typically done using a WHO-developed rehydration solution that contains a prepackaged mixture of salts and sugars. You mix it with (clean) water and drink it in large amounts.
In the most severe cases of cholera, treatment may require intravenous (by IV) fluid replacement.
Video: What Exactly Does Cholera Do To Your Body?
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