Illness and Symptoms

Cholera is an acute diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine with Vibrio cholerae bacteria. People can get sick when they swallow food or water contaminated with cholera bacteria. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but can sometimes be severe and life-threatening.

A physician checking a patient for dehydration

A physician checking a patient for dehydration

About 1 in 10 people with cholera will experience severe symptoms, which, in the early stages, include:

  • profuse watery diarrhea, sometimes described as “rice-water stools”
  • vomiting
  • thirst
  • leg cramps
  • restlessness or irritability

Health care providers should look for signs of dehydration when examining a patient with profuse watery diarrhea. These include:

  • rapid heart rate
  • loss of skin elasticity
  • dry mucous membranes
  • low blood pressure

People with severe cholera can develop severe dehydration, which can lead to kidney failure. If left untreated, severe dehydration can lead to shock, coma, and death within hours.

Person washing hands over a bucket of water

Person washing hands over a bucket of water.

The profuse diarrhea produced by cholera patients contains large amounts of the infectious Vibrio cholerae germ that can infect others if swallowed. This can happen when the bacteria get on food or into water.

To prevent the bacteria from spreading, all feces (human waste) from sick persons should be thrown away carefully to ensure it does not contaminate anything nearby.

People caring for cholera patients must wash their hands thoroughly after touching anything that might be contaminated with patients’ feces (poop).

When cholera patients are treated quickly, they usually recover without long-term consequences. Cholera patients do not typically become carriers of the cholera bacteria after they recover, but they get sick if exposed again.