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What is cholera? What are its symptoms? And how can you catch it?

What is cholera?

Cholera is a bacterial infection. It’s usually transmitted through contaminated drinking water or food that’s been washed with contaminated water.

What are the symptoms?

Some people don’t experience any symptoms but typically those infected notice white bits in their stools, which can look like grains of rice. Other symptoms include:

• severe vomiting
• feeling sick
• stomach cramps
• watery diarrhoea
• a high temperature.

How soon do symptoms appear?

Quite quickly, usually between 1-2 hours, but they can take up to five days.

What should I do if I think I have cholera?

You must seek medical help as soon as possible. Even if it doesn’t seem too bad, but you have vomiting and diarrhoea, you may quickly become dehydrated. If left untreated, cholera can be fatal.


What should I be aware of?

Dehydration can be the biggest problem with a bacterial infection like cholera. Even mild sickness and diarrhoea causes the body to lose a lot of water and electrolytes (sodium, chloride, potassium and bicarbonate). This leads to dehydration, which comes in three stages:

1. Early dehydration. This has no signs or symptoms.

2. Moderate dehydration. This is indicated by thirst, restless or irritable behaviour, decreased skin elasticity and sunken eyes.

3. Severe dehydration. This is indicated by shock, diminished consciousness, lack of urine, cool, moist extremities, a rapid and weak pulse, low or undetectable blood pressure, and pale skin.


How can I protect myself from cholera?

• Drink and use safe water: this can be bottled water with an unbroken seal, boiled water or water treated with a chlorine product
• Treat piped water as it may not be safe: use a chlorine bleach product or boil it before drinking
• Wash your hands often with soap and safe water: if there’s no soap, scrub hands with an anti-bacterial gel
• Cook food well (especially seafood): eat it hot, keep it covered, and peel fruit and vegetables
• Clean up safely: in the kitchen and in places where your family bathes and washes clothes
• Use toilets where available: if there’s no toilet, bury any faeces 30 metres away from any body of water.

Why handwashing is an important defence

Handwashing with soap and safe water is one way to help prevent the spread of cholera as soap helps remove dirt and cholera germs from hands.

You can help protect yourself and your family from becoming ill with cholera by making sure you wash your hands regularly. Unwashed – or poorly washed – hands can transfer cholera germs to food, water, and household surfaces and quickly spread the disease.

Find out more about effective handwashing

3 tips to beat cholera

1. Be aware. You can still have and pass cholera on even if symptoms are not present. Faeces will still contain the bacteria for 7-14 days after infection.
2. Wash your hands. If you wash your hands properly, according to the advice from the World Health Organisation, it should take as long as singing ‘Happy Birthday To You’ twice.
3. Stay hydrated. If you contract cholera, make sure you drink plenty of water to replace lost fluids.

Myths about cholera

Myth: If water looks clean, it’s safe to drink.
Fact: It’s not possible to tell if water is safe to drink just by its appearance.

Myth: You can build up an immunity to the germs in the water supply.
Fact: You can’t build up any sort of immunity to cholera or typhoid