Cholera is an acute infection of the small intestine caused by the toxin released by the Vibrio cholerae bacteria. The illness is characterized by massive amounts of watery diarrhea and occurs primarily in conditions of overcrowding and poor sanitation. The illness has been known to occur as an epidemic in war torn countries and areas where famine are present.
Cholera is transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the Vibrio cholerae bacteria. Infected individuals shed the bacteria in fecal matter, which can easily contaminate ground water, waterways, or the drinking water supply. The bacteria laden water and everything that has been exposed to the water, such as shellfish, can cause cholera.
Recent studies have discovered that susceptibility of cholera and other diarrheal infections may be linked to the individual’s blood type. Type O contracts the illness the easiest, while type AB is the most resistant to the infection. Type A and B fall into midrange, with Type A being slightly more resistant than type B.
Cholera is characterized by the sudden onset of large amounts of watery diarrhea, which can cause dehydration quickly. Other symptoms include lethargy, nausea, vomiting, rapid pulse and abdominal pain. The illness can also cause severe muscle and stomach cramps as well as fever in the early stages.
In the later stages, the diarrhea takes on a “rice water” appearance, almost clear with flecks of white. Ruptured capillaries in the face can cause the facial skin to become black and blue, with blue lips and sunken eyes.
In the most severe cases, cholera can be one of the most rapidly fatal illnesses known to man. A healthy individual can go from symptoms appearing to death in under three hours if no treatment is provided.
In other cases, cholera progresses from the initial appearance of diarrhea to shock in 4 to 12 hours, with death occurring in 18 to 72 hours with no treatment. Death is usually due to the severe dehydration brought on by the massive amounts of diarrhea exiting the body.
The treatment for cholera includes aggressive rehydration and the replacement of electrolytes lost to diarrhea. Many patients must replace just as much fluid as they have lost, up to 20L. Fluids can be given either orally or intravenously. Antibiotics may be given to shorten the length of time the patient is ill.
Tetracycline antibiotics may play a part in reducing both the duration and severity of cholera, but drug-resistance is occurring and the effects on overall mortality remains unknown. Without aggressive treatment, cholera can be fatal up to 50% of the time.
Cholera is almost nonexistent in the United States due to advanced water and sanitation systems, although travelers to other countries are still at risk. Though cholera is a life-threatening illness, it is easily preventable and treatable.
The illness is still common in many parts of the world, and 1 in 20 individuals will develop a severe case of the infection. Without treatment, the death rate can be as high as 50%, but with treatment that number can be reduced to less than 1%.
The Information contained on this page is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical or legal advice. If you feel that you or someone you know has food poisoning, seek medical attention immediately by visiting your doctor or by dialing 911.
Related: Vibrio Food Poisoning Lawsuit
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