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Cholera – causes and symptoms

Cholera is a potentially life-threatening infection caught from drinking water or eating food contaminated with the Vibrio cholera bacteria.

People don’t get cholera in the UK - but it can be a risk when travelling to some places abroad. In rare cases, people can come back from holiday with the infection. However, you are unlikely to catch cholera directly from an infected person.

Cholera symptoms

Some people can be infected with cholera without having any symptoms, but when there are symptoms, they develop in a few hours - or a few days after infection. Symptoms include:

A person with cholera can become dehydrated and experience a significant drop in their blood pressure, and may go into shock. Untreated, cholera can be fatal.

Where is cholera a risk?

Always check for specific risks in countries abroad you are planning to visit before you travel.

Cholera can be found in:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa
  • South Asia, south-east Asia
  • Middle East
  • Central America
  • The Caribbean.


Sources of cholera

Cholera bacteria are passed on from the poo of a person who is infected - especially where water, sewage, sanitation and general hygiene is not as good as we have at home in the UK, or where there's a lot of overcrowding, allowing infections to spread.

Cholera bacteria may be found in:

  • Public water supplies
  • Ice made from tap water
  • Street food and drink
  • Vegetables grown on land contaminated with human sewage
  • Raw fish, undercooked fish and seafood, that's been caught in contaminated water.

Cholera vaccination

Vaccination is available against cholera and may be recommended for some people going abroad to areas where cholera is common and health care is some distance away - such as aid workers.

You'll need to plan ahead - as vaccination comes as a special liquid to drink in 2-3 doses a week to 6 weeks apart.

The vaccine is 85% effective - and booster doses may be needed over time. It can cause stomach upsets as a side effect. The vaccine isn’t suitable for children under 2. Check with your GP or travel clinic for specific information.

Cholera prevention

For most tourists, steps can be taken to help avoid cholera, including:

  • Only drinking sealed bottled water
  • Using bottled water for brushing teeth
  • Not having ice in drinks or eating local ice cream
  • Not eating uncooked fruit or vegetables unless you know they have been washed and prepared in clean water
  • Not eating salads, seafood or shellfish.

Cholera treatment

Because cholera causes dehydration - the first treatment is usually a special drink called oral rehydration solution (ORS) to help the person's recovery.

This can be bought before travel from pharmacies or travel clinics.

In severe cases, antibiotics may need to be given through an IV drip to fight the infection.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 12, 2016

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