Cholera Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

Cholera is a disease caused by a bacterium that is rare in the U.S. but common in some developing countries. It causes copious amounts of diarrhea; however, it is relatively easy to prevent and treatable.

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  1. Overview
  2. Symptoms
  3. Potential Causes
  4. Treatment, Prevention and Relief
  5. When to Seek Further Consultation
  6. References

What Is Cholera?


Cholera is caused by a bacterium known as Vibrio cholerae that infects the lining of the GI tract and reduces its ability to absorb water and some nutrients, leading to large amounts of watery diarrhea [1]. Other symptoms include cramps, nausea, vomiting, a rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, and muscle cramps, most of which are due to dehydration. Treatments are mainly supportive to address fluid loss from dehydration. Occasionally, antibiotics are also used; however, they are often not necessary if you remain hydrated as the condition will pass on its own.

Recommended care

Cholera Symptoms

Main symptoms

The primary symptoms of cholera are cramps, diarrhea, and the symptoms of dehydration following diarrhea [1].

  • Diarrhea: The most severe symptom of cholera is diarrhea. Severe diarrhea only occurs in 5–10% of infected people and depends on the amount of ingested bacterium and any natural resistance to the disease. If water and electrolytes are not replenished, this severity of diarrhea can lead to death.
  • Vomiting: Once the bacteria have entered the gut, this can result in nausea and vomiting.
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia): As fluid is lost through vomiting and diarrhea, your heart may struggle to provide each organ with the necessary amount of oxygenated blood when blood volume is reduced by dehydration.
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension): In severe cases of dehydration, the body is sometimes unable to maintain healthy blood pressure. Low blood pressure can contribute to other symptoms like dizziness and fainting.
  • Thirst: Diarrhea can lead to severe thirst as your body makes you aware of your need to replenish lost fluid.
  • Muscle cramps: Severe and debilitating muscle cramps can occur as electrolytes like potassium are lost.

Cholera Causes

Cholera is caused by ingestion of the Vibrio cholerae bacterium. The bacterium is can be found on an infected person’s hands if they do not wash their hands properly after defecating. This bacteria can then transfer to food or drink prepared without proper hygiene. More commonly, the bacterium can enter the water supply due to inadequate waste management and be consumed thereafter.

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Treatment Options, Relief, and Prevention for Cholera


Cholera will resolve naturally unless you have a suppressed immune system. However, large amounts of fluid loss can lead to fatal arrhythmias from dehydration or loss of essential electrolytes. In many cases, cholera proves to be fatal as diarrhea causes a loss of fluid at a rate that overwhelms conventional rehydration efforts, leading to death by loss of fluid, heart failure, or electrolyte imbalance. The two effective ways to survive cholera are by prevention of the bacteria itself as well as the prevention of severe dehydration [2,3].

  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are capable of treating and eliminating cholera. Even in the absence of antibiotics, if you remain hydrated, the infection will clear.
  • Oral rehydration: A mixture of electrolytes called oral rehydration salts (ORS) is useful for preventing dangerous electrolyte imbalance until the body has cleared the infection or antibiotics have taken full effect.
  • IV rehydration: Intravenous rehydration is another way to treat rapid fluid loss from diarrhea and vomiting.


Cholera is prevented by ensuring that sewage does not enter any food or drink. This can be done with proper sanitation and sewage disposal, especially in areas where food prep occurs.

  • Proper food and drink preparation: People who prepare food should wash their hands with soap and water thoroughly before work begins and wash their hands after entering or going to the restroom for any reason. Proper food handling techniques should also be used to limit the spread of any other illnesses.
  • Sewage disposal: In most cases of widespread cholera, there is a contamination of either water for bathing or water for drinking with untreated sewage. Proper sewage disposal greatly reduces the transmission of cholera.

When to Seek Further Consultation for Cholera

If you or someone you know is showing signs of severe dehydration following diarrhea or suspected cholera, it may be necessary to seek further medical care. Cholera is treatable with either antibiotics and replenishment of electrolytes and fluids or just replenishment of electrolytes and fluids.


  1. Cholera - Vibrio cholerae infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed May 3, 2018. CDC Link

  2. Cholera. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated Dec. 19, 2018. MedlinePlus Link

  3. Treatment | Cholera. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed May 21, 2018. CDC Link