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Cholera in Children

What is cholera in children?

Cholera is an infectious disease caused by bacteria. Your child can get cholera if he or she eats food or drinks water that is contaminated with the bacteria.

Cholera is a health problem in many developing countries. It’s mainly found in Africa, south Asia, and in the Caribbean (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It is rare in developed countries like the U.S. But there have been some outbreaks in the U.S. They have been caused by contaminated seafood that travelers have brought into the country.

The acids in your stomach and digestive tract can kill small amounts of the cholera bacteria. Because of this, most infected people will not have any symptoms. But the bacteria are still in their stool for 7 to 14 days. During that time, they can infect other people. This is especially true if they have poor hygiene habits.

What causes cholera in a child?

The cholera bacteria are often found in water supplies made unclean because of the unsanitary disposal of stool. Cholera is rarely passed from one person to another. It is often spread by drinking water or eating food from:

  • City water supplies

  • Ice made from city water

  • Foods and drinks bought from street vendors

  • Vegetables irrigated with fresh sewage

  • Raw or improperly cooked fish and seafood taken from waters polluted with sewage

What are the symptoms of cholera in a child?

Most children who get symptoms have a mild to moderate upset stomach. Worse cases may cause vomiting and watery diarrhea, called “rice-water stools.” These symptoms may lead to dehydration. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • A very rapid heart rate

  • Dry mucous membranes

  • Very low blood pressure

  • Muscle cramps

If untreated, severe dehydration can lead to shock and death. Those with weak immune systems are at greater risk of dying from the infection.

How is cholera diagnosed in a child?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's past health and travel history. Your child will also need an exam, as well as blood and stool tests. 

How is cholera treated in a child?

For diarrhea that is worse than normal, talk with your child's healthcare provider. Don’t treat it on your own. Seek medical help if diarrhea becomes severe and watery, or if vomiting happens.

Treatment will depend on your child's symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Your child may need to be rehydrated with fluids. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to help your child get better faster.

What are possible complications of cholera in a child?

If left untreated, diarrhea from cholera can cause severe dehydration. That can lead to shock and even death.

What can I do to prevent cholera in my child?

One of the best ways to prevent cholera is to wash your child's hands often.

If you are traveling in an area where cholera is common, only use water that has been boiled or chemically disinfected for:

  • Drinking or making beverages such as tea or coffee

  • Brushing your teeth

  • Washing your face and hands

  • Washing fruits and vegetables

  • Washing eating utensils and food preparation equipment

  • Washing the surfaces of tins, cans, and bottles that contain food or beverages

Don't let your child eat or drink foods or beverages from unknown sources. Any raw food could be contaminated, including:

  • Fruits, vegetables, and salad greens

  • Unpasteurized milk and milk products

  • Raw meat

  • Shellfish

  • Any fish caught in tropical reefs rather than the open ocean

A single-dose oral vaccine is available in the U.S. Three other oral vaccines are available abroad. At this time, no country requires the vaccine for entry if a person arrives from a country with the disease. None of the vaccines are fully effective, though, so preventing exposure is the most important thing you can do.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if your child's symptoms return or get worse, or if he or she has new ones.

Key points about cholera in children

  • Cholera is an infectious disease caused by bacteria. Your child can get cholera if he or she eats or drinks foods that are contaminated with the bacteria.

  • The cholera bacteria are usually found in unclean water supplies because of the unsanitary disposal of stool.

  • Cholera is mainly found in Africa, south Asia, and the Caribbean.

  • Cholera can cause severe diarrhea. That may make your child dehydrated.

  • To prevent cholera, wash your child's hands often. Only provide your child boiled or disinfected water. Do not let your child eat food from unknown sources. Talk with your healthcare provider about whether to get a cholera vaccine before traveling to an area with outbreaks.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Wanda Taylor RN PhD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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