Alternative names: dysentery (though dysentery is actually a different condition, the two are often confused)
Type of infection: bacterial
Incubation period: 12 hours to 5 days
Mortality rate: up to 50% when untreated
Vector: contaminated water
The earliest reports of cholera-like symptoms are from India, about 1000 years ago, but there have been notable outbreaks around the world right up into current times. During an outbreak in England in 1854, contaminated water was discovered to be the root of the epidemic. That discovery led to the decline of the disease as city’s began to improve their drinking water systems with more sanitary conditions.
Drinking unclean water that has been contaminated with cholera bacteria is the typical usual route for getting sick, though eating food that has been exposed to dirty water will also do it. It is not transferred from person to person in any way.
Signs and Symptoms
Severe diarrhea and vomiting are the main symptoms of cholera. The diarrhea is often described as having the appearance of “rice water”, being very thin and grayish in color. Losing 10 to 20 quarts of liquid in diarrhea each day, a patient will quickly become dangerously dehydrated. With that comes lethargy, clammy skin, labored breathing and muscle cramps. Without any treatment, eventually it will bring on low blood pressure, seizure and death.
The simplest treatment for cholera is to simply keep the patient hydrated. Water alone is better than nothing, but a proper rehydration formula that is better balanced in electrolytes is better. Commercial products are fine, if they are available. If not, you can use 1 quart of boiled water, mixed with 1/2 tsp of salt and 6 tsp of sugar.
If antibiotics are available, you can dramatically shorten the duration of the disease with doxycycline, erythromycin or ciprofloxacin. Areas where cholera is an ongoing problem (like India and Bangladesh), there can be some antibiotic resistance with tetracycline though it would be viable option elsewhere.
Besides the obvious approach of not drinking dirty water, there are some other preventative measures you can keep in mind. Boiling and filtration is enough to sanitize your drinking water to prevent cholera infection, and if you suspect that this may be a serious problem for you in the future, you can also get vaccinated.
It’s generally not a problem in first-world countries, but in a disaster situation, water supplies may become limited. For example, there was an outbreak of cholera in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Having to rely on questionable sources for water may bring cholera to the forefront in some areas, so its definitely a disease to keep an eye on.