Signs and Symptoms of Cholera

What to know

  • People can get cholera from drinking water or eating food containing cholera bacteria.
  • Cholera can cause severe diarrhea which, left untreated, can lead to dehydration, even death.
Young boy with his head resting on his crossed arms and being treated for cholera through an IV

Early symptoms

A healthcare provider talks to a mother and her young son.
A young boy is treated for cholera at a health center in Haiti. With early treatment, even patients with severe cholera can survive. Photos: ©UNICEF/U.S. CDC/UN0771611/UN0771609/Rouzier

People with cholera often will have mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all, and get better on their own. About 1 in 10 people will develop severe symptoms that can be life-threatening.

Early symptoms of cholera include:

  • Watery diarrhea, sometimes described as "rice-water stools" because they are milky white
  • Vomiting
  • Leg cramps
  • Restlessness or irritability

Symptoms usually appear 2-3 days after someone drinks or eats something containing cholera bacteria. Symptoms can show up within a few hours or up to 5 days.

During a cholera outbreak, people with acute watery diarrhea (3 or more loose stools a day) should seek care.

Later symptoms

Losing body fluids quickly from diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration. Patients with severe cholera may have lost more than 10% of body weight by the time they seek medical care.

If untreated, severe dehydration can lead to kidney failure, shock, coma, and death.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Loss of elasticity in the skin
  • Dry mucous membranes
  • Low blood pressure

With early and proper treatment, even people with severe cholera can survive.

Keep Reading: Treating Cholera