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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.

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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

What is diarrhoea? What causes it? And how can you prevent it?

What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is when you have frequent and watery stools. Although diarrhoea is often harmless, it can lead to dehydration, so it’s best to keep a close eye on the very young or elderly if they have it.

What causes diarrhoea?

It’s usually your body reacting to a virus or infection. It can be contracted through eating or drinking infected food or water. It can also be contracted by touching someone infected and then not washing your hands. Common causes include:

  • viruses: like the norovirus or rotavirus
  • bacteria: such as Campylobacter and Escherichia coli (E. coli), which is usually from contaminated food
  • parasites: which are often ingested from contaminated water like Giardia, the parasite that causes giardiasis.

What’s the most important thing I should know about diarrhoea?

Dehydration can be the most harmful effect of diarrhoea. When someone is ill with diarrhoea they can lose fluids and electrolytes very quickly. Electrolytes are essential bodily salts and include sodium, chloride, potassium and bicarbonate.

young african nurse comforting female patient

The 3 stages of dehydration:

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

Stage 2: Moderate dehydration. Symptoms include: thirst, restless or irritable behaviour, decreased skin elasticity and sunken eyes.

Stage 3: Severe dehydration. Symptoms include: 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 treat diarrhoea and dehydration?

It’s vital to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes if you have diarrhoea. Oral rehydration salts (ORS) can help. They’re a mixture of salts and sugar that must be dissolved in clean water. Zinc supplements may also help as they can reduce the volume of your stools by 30%. See your doctor if you’re worried.

How can I protect myself and my family?

Use only safe water. All water – whether it is for drinking or cooking – needs to be boiled for one minute to kill any harmful germs.
Prepare food hygienically. Wash all fruit and vegetables with clean water. Make sure all bowls, plates and utensils are washed in boiling water.
Wash your hands regularly. This will help to kill any harmful germs before they can spread.

4 top tips to tackle diarrhoea

1. 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.
2. Keep clean. Washing regularly is your best defence. Make sure that all food, food preparation areas, and utensils are clean.
3. Keep hydrated. To avoid losing a dangerous amount of fluid during a bout of diarrhoea, make sure you drink plenty of fluids on a regular basis.
4. Seek help. If you’re not getting better or if your symptoms are severe, contact your doctor immediately