Vibrio cholerae (Cholera) Infection: Overview, Symptoms, Treatment And Life-Threatening Complications

A number of bacterial strains have been identified as pathogenic and potentially life-threatening when exposed to the human body. Cholera is one particular infectious disease that is considered extremely dangerous and needs to be attended to upon exposure to avoid potentially fatal complications. While not the most common bacterial infection throughout the world Cholera does affect approximately 2.8 million people every year, of which an estimated amount of 91,000 cases becomes fatal and leads to death. The disease has been detected in 51 countries.

Understanding how to identify risk factors for Cholera, knowing what symptom to recognize and how the possibility of being exposed to the bacteria can be reduced is vital for any person travelling to a country where the diseases are considered an epidemic.

What Is The Cholera Infection And How Does It Infect A Person?

Cholera is a dangerous bacterial infectious disease that is caused by a strain of bacteria known as Vibrio cholerae. The serogroups O1 and O139 individually are the strains that cause this infection. The disease has caused seven pandemics over the past few decades. The latest of these pandemics started in 1961 when the infection killed over 120,000 people within just one year. Once symptoms set in, prompt treatment is needed as the infected person has a chance of reaching fatal complications that reach over 50%. With the right treatment implemented quickly, this chance of dying is reduced to lower than 0.2%.

The bacterium strain that causes the Cholera infection enters the body of a person through water and food that has been contaminated with the bacteria. The prevalence of this infection is much worse in areas where hygiene and sanitation are not a particular priority, as well as in areas where public health care systems are not up to standards.

What Symptoms Does Cholera Cause?

There are four symptoms associated with the presence of Cholera in a patient – identifying these symptoms when it is expected that a person has been exposed to contaminated water or food is essential.

The most common symptom that Cholera causes is diarrhea – this is also one of the most concerning symptoms of this disease. The stool expelled from the patient’s body is often referred to as rice-water stool, due to the milky and pale appearance it will resemble. In approximately 10% of cases where a person exposed to the bacterium species that causes the disease to develop some symptoms, severe diarrhea will develop and will cause life-threatening complications when not treated quickly.

Nausea is also not uncommon in people infected with Cholera, which is sometimes also accompanied by vomiting. A person infected with the bacteria may experience sessions of vomiting for several hours at once.

Another concerning symptom is dehydration. The body relies on optimal hydration, and when severe dehydration occurs, it can also lead to potentially fatal complications. Once dehydrated, additional symptoms may also develop, such as dry skin, extreme thirst, sunken eyes, irritability, reduced urine output, arrhythmia, a reduction in blood pressure, and lethargy.

An electrolyte imbalance may also occur, which can lead to muscle cramps, as well as a more serious adverse reaction, known as “shock," which cause a significant reduction in oxygen and blood pressure throughout the entire body.

Does Everyone Experience Symptoms?

The widespread epidemic related to the Cholera infection is often pointed toward the fact that not all people who are exposed to the bacteria will develop symptoms. In the majority of cases where the bacteria enter a person’s body, it will stay within their body for up to 10 days, after which all of the bacteria are expelled from their body through feces.

This, however, is not the case for all people who are exposed to contaminated food or water. In some cases, symptoms will develop – this occurs when the bacteria cause the affected person to develop the Cholera infectious disease. Most cases where symptoms do develop are not too severe, and the patient will experience mild symptoms, but there are cases where severe symptoms develop – in such a situation, prompt treatment is needed as the bacterial infection can lead to death within just a few hours.

How Is This Infectious Disease Diagnosed?

The prompt diagnosis of Cholera after a person might have been exposed to contaminated substances is essential to prevent symptoms and life-threatening complications. Laboratory tests are needed to diagnose the disease. When a patient is expected to have been infected, they will most likely be treated for lost fluids while waiting for the test results from the laboratory – these tests are also usually done quickly since delaying treatment can be fatal.

Different types of tests have been developed to help speed up the diagnosis of Cholera. One publication explains that a new option, known as a Rapid Cholera Dipstick, currently provides for the fastest detection of the Cholera bacteria in a patient’s body, allowing for faster diagnosis and prompt delivery of treatment.

Water could be contaminated with the cholera bacteria.

Water could be contaminated with the cholera bacteria.

Can Cholera Be Treated Successfully?

Treatment for Cholera infections includes a multi-action approach in order to target both the symptoms caused by the infectious disease, as well as the bacteria causing the disease, simultaneously. This is a more effective approach since both poses threats to an infected patient’s health and will significantly reduce their risk of dying.

The first line of treatment for a patient that has been infected with this disease is to rehydrate their body. A physician in charge that is attending to the patient will need to determine how severely they have been dehydrated and determine the best approach to rehydration based on their findings. This may include:

  • Oral rehydration by means of a salt solution.
  • Intravenous rehydration by means of a Ringer’s lactate.

In addition to providing the patient with a method of rehydration, antibiotic treatments are also often used together with the initial treatment approach to assist with fighting against the actual bacteria causing the disease. One study explains that the use of specific antibiotic drugs, including doxycycline, ciprofloxacin, furazolidone, tetracycline, and norfloxacin, has been found to also reduce stool output (minimize diarrhea), which makes the rehydration methods initiated more successful.

Can Cholera Kill An Infected Person?

Cholera is considered a life-threatening disease in a small number of cases. This, however, does not mean a person who only develops moderate symptoms should not be concerned – the symptoms may progress and become more severe. When excessive dehydration is experienced, along with a more severe level of diarrhea, then the patient can die within hours after starting to show signs of the infection. This makes fast and effective treatment a vital element in saving a patient's life.

How Can Cholera Be Avoided?

Some vaccines have been approved for the use as a preventative option against Cholera, but these vaccines are known not to be 100% effective. In addition to obtaining an appropriate vaccine prior to travelling to a destination where a person would be put at a higher risk of being infected with this disease, a number of additional helpful tips may help to prevent the infection further:

  • Hands should frequently be washed, especially while abroad at the "high-risk" area.
  • Water should not be consumed unless a person knows that it comes from an uncontaminated source.
  • Both heat and effective disinfectant solutions should be used to disinfect any particular linen or other objects, including surfaces, that a person may come in contact with when there is a risk of contamination.
  • When using ice, the ice should be made from water that is known to be from a source that has not been contaminated.

Which Countries Are Considered High-Risk Areas For Cholera?

While the general risk of Cholera for most travel destinations is considered to be low, there are certain areas in the world where the infectious disease is considered a public health epidemic. Individuals planning to travel abroad should do some initial research and identify whether their travel destination may fall within such a category.

In particular, the Government of Canada has advised residents to be especially careful when visiting a region of Asia and Africa. Additionally, some parts of the Central and the Southern American regions are also considered to be high-risk areas.


Being infected with the Cholera bacterial infection can lead to fatal complications and lead to death in just a couple of days. Recognition of the symptoms is vital as early treatment is important for the prevention of complications, which can be fatal and lead to the death of the affected person. Additional education about countries and region where the risk of being infected with this bacterial disease also plays a role in ensuring travellers take appropriate precautionary measures to prevent infection.