What is cholera?

Cholera is an acute (sudden and severe) illness caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholera infecting a person’s intestines. Between 1 and 4 million people worldwide are affected by cholera each year. People can get very bad diarrhea from cholera. Some 21,000 to 143,000 die, most often from dehydration.

How common is cholera?

Cholera occurs in areas without clean water. It is rare in industrialized countries, such as the United States, ever since modern sewer and water systems appeared about 200 years ago. Although cholera usually occurs in areas of poor sanitation and unclean water, outbreaks can also take place after natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.

Unfortunately, cholera is on the rise in other parts of the world, and the rate has increased steadily since 2005. Cholera is believed to exist in about 60 countries today, mostly in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Haiti. Areas in which there are large numbers of refugees can have more cases, as refugee camps often do not have proper sanitation. Recent studies also show that climate change creates a favorable environment for cholera-causing bacteria to live.

With these factors, and with an increase in travel around the world today, Americans need to be aware of cholera. It can be life-threatening if not treated properly.

What are the symptoms of cholera?

Cholera infection can be mild, and some people have no symptoms. However, in about 1 in 10 infected people, the symptoms can be very severe. These patients will have a lot of watery diarrhea, vomiting, and leg cramps. They can lose bodily fluids very quickly, leading to dehydration and shock. Severe dehydration can be fatal, sometimes very quickly (within hours).

Symptoms usually appear 2 to 3 days after a person has been exposed to cholera. They can also appear within hours, or take up to 5 days to develop.

How does a person get cholera?

People usually come in contact with cholera bacteria from consuming food or water that has been contaminated by feces from a person who has cholera. This often happens in areas in which there is inadequate water treatment, poor sanitation, and poor hygiene. Areas near water sources that are somewhat salty and warm, such as coastal areas, are more likely to have cholera outbreaks than other areas.

Cholera typically does not spread from one person to another directly, so you are unlikely to get it from casual contact with a person with cholera. Person-to-person transmission can occur, however. It is important to observe very careful hand hygiene and disposal of sewage, waste water, and anything that might be contaminated.

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