We hear of cholera outbreaks in many developing countries. What is cholera, what causes it, and how do you treat it, are common thoughts that run through our minds when we hear of this potentially deadly disease.
Cholera is a serious infection of the small intestine, caused by a bacteria (Vibrio cholerae) that produces large amounts of very watery diarrhea, along with vomiting. It's a highly contagious bacterial disease, that can be fatal if not treated.
Photo © Wikipedia
Microscopic Image of the Cholera Virus
Causes of CholeraYou get cholera through the ingestion of contaminated food and/or water. It's transmitted because of fecal contamination in the water source, related to poor sanitation. In areas of war, famine, overcrowding, where poor sanitation is prevalent, it is a very real threat.
Eating any food washed in contaminated water, or drinking the contaminated water, are two ways the disease is transmitted. Eating shellfish from contaminated areas should be avoided as well.
Symptoms of CholeraThis intestinal infection usually starts suddenly within one to five days of having ingested the bacteria.
The main symptoms are copious amounts of painless diarrhea and vomiting of clear fluid. The diarrhea itself is sometimes called 'rice water' because of it's appearance, and it might also have a fishy odor. A person who has cholera and is not being treated, can produce 10 to 20 liters of diarrhea a day.
Symptoms of cholera can be mild to severe and can consist of:
- abdominal cramps
- sudden start of watery diarrhea that has a 'fishy' smell
- lethargy and tiredness
- unusual sleepiness
- low urine output
- rapid heart rate (pulse)
- excessive thirst
- wrinkled skin on hands
- dry skin and dry mouth
- glassy, sunken eyes
- lack of tears
Obviously, if left untreated, this becomes life-threatening because of dehydration and imbalances of electrolytes.
What Is Cholera Risk?
The Vibrio cholerae bacteria toxin causes severe diarrhea by increasing the release of water in the intestines.
The risks are greater when there is untreated or contaminated drinking water, or when traveling to cholera outbreak areas.
Children are particularly vulnerable, especially between the ages of two and four, where the highest rates of infection are seen.
People with type O blood are the most susceptible to the cholera disease.
The greatest threat is severe dehydration. If left untreated, it can cause death. However, if people who have contracted the disease are given proper treatment, they can make a full recovery.
What Is Cholera TreatmentThe main objective when treating cholera patients, is to rehydrate by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes, the minerals in the blood and body fluids.
WHO (the World Health Organization) developed an affordable and easy to use oral re-hydration solution of sugar and electrolytes. It is used internationally as an effective treatment.
There are commercially available re-hydration tablets that are a good recommendation for travelers to undeveloped countries.
An easy, homemade remedy, is to
- boil one liter of water
- add one teaspoon of salt
- add eight teaspoons of sugar
- add some mashed banana that both improves the taste and is high in potassium.
When the dehydration gets corrected, potassium levels can go down quickly, so bananas are a helpful additive.
Of course, antibiotics over a period of one to three days will reduce the severity of the symptoms more quickly. Unfortunately, they are not always available to those suffering in undeveloped area.
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