Cholera differential diagnosis

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editors-In-Chief: Priyamvada Singh, MBBS [2]


Patients with cholera may have a history of consumption of contaminated food or water and/or travel to an endemic area. Symptoms of cholera usually develop within 24-48 hour of infection. Patient presents with sudden-onset, painless, odorless, rice-watery, large-volume stool; abdominal cramps; vomiting; and fever. Cholera should be differentiated from other infectious causes of diarrhea such as rotavirus, E. coli, amoebic dysentry, and giardiasis. Cholera should also be differentiated from some non-infectious causes of diarrhea such as VIPoma, tubulovillous adenoma, and food poisoning.[1][2][3][4]

Differentiating Cholera from other Diseases

Cholera must be differentiated from other conditions associated with acute onset diarrhea, including:[1][2][3][4]

Infectious causes of diarrhea

  • It may be difficult to differentiate cholera from other infectious causes of diarrhea, especially if it is mild and in early stages.
  • Fresh stool microscopy, stool culture, PCR, and other techniques help to differentiate these conditions. Stool tests are useful, cheap, and frequently used to differentiate cholera from other infectious conditions. Other tests (e.g., PCR, serotyping), though sensitive and specific, may not be performed due to prohibitive cost or lack of availability at many healthcare centers.


Amoebic Hemorrhagic E. coli Dysentery

  • Bloody diarrhea, which is not seen in cholera, guides clinicians toward a diagnosis of dysentery.
  • The volume of stool is not as high as seen in cases of cholera.


  • The volume of stool is not as high as in cases of cholera.
  • Stool microscopy is used to detect eggs and parasites.
  • The stool of giardiasis patients produces a strong odor, whereas cholera patients usually have odorless stools.


  • The volume of stool is not as high as in cases of cholera.
  • Stool microscopy is used to detect eggs and parasites.

Food poisoning

  • The volume of stool is not as high as in cases of cholera.

Non-infectious causes of diarrhea


  • Patients present with a chronic history of diarrhea
  • Volume of stool is not as high as in cases of cholera
  • Negative stool examination and culture
  • Fasting gut hormones confirm the diagnosis

Tubulovillous adenoma

  • Colonoscopy and biopsy confirm the diagnosis
  • Patients present with a chronic history of diarrhea
  • Volume of stool is not as high as in cases of cholera
  • Negative stool examination and culture

The table below summarizes the findings that differentiate watery causes of chronic diarrhea[5][6][7][8]

Cause Osmotic gap History Physical exam Gold standard Treatment
< 50 mOsm per kg > 50 mOsm per kg*
Watery Secretory Crohns + -
Hyperthyroidism + -
VIPoma + -
  • Elevated VIP levels
  • Followed by imaging
Osmotic Lactose intolerance - +
Celiac disease - +
Functional Irritable bowel syndrome - -

Abdominal pain or discomfort recurring at least 3 days per month in the past 3 months and associated with 2 or more of the following:

  • Onset associated with change in frequency of stool
  • Onset associated with change in appearance of stool

History of straining is also common

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Differential Diagnosis by Organ System

Cardiovascular No underlying causes
Chemical / poisoning No underlying causes
Dermatologic No underlying causes
Drug Side Effect No underlying causes
Ear Nose Throat No underlying causes
Endocrine No underlying causes
Environmental No underlying causes
Gastroenterologic VIPoma, Tubulovillous adenoma, Food poisoning
Genetic No underlying causes
Hematologic No underlying causes
Iatrogenic No underlying causes
Infectious Disease Giardiasis, Amoebic dysentry, E. coli, Strongyloides,
Musculoskeletal / Ortho No underlying causes
Neurologic No underlying causes
Nutritional / Metabolic No underlying causes
Obstetric/Gynecologic No underlying causes
Oncologic No underlying causes
Opthalmologic No underlying causes
Overdose / Toxicity No underlying causes
Psychiatric No underlying causes
Pulmonary No underlying causes
Renal / Electrolyte No underlying causes
Rheum / Immune / Allergy No underlying causes
Sexual No underlying causes
Trauma No underlying causes
Urologic No underlying causes
Miscellaneous No underlying causes


  1. 1.0 1.1 Sack DA, Sack RB, Nair GB, Siddique AK (2004). "Cholera". Lancet. 363 (9404): 223–33. PMID 14738797.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Krejs GJ (1987). "VIPoma syndrome". Am J Med. 82 (5B): 37–48. PMID 3035922.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Guerrant RL, Van Gilder T, Steiner TS, et al.; Infectious Diseases Society of America. Practice guidelines for the management of infectious diarrhea. Clin Infect Dis. 2001;32(3):331–351.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Scallan, Elaine, et al. "Foodborne illness acquired in the United States—unspecified agents." Emerg Infect Dis 17.1 (2011): 16-22.
  5. Silverberg MS, Satsangi J, Ahmad T, Arnott ID, Bernstein CN, Brant SR; et al. (2005). "Toward an integrated clinical, molecular and serological classification of inflammatory bowel disease: report of a Working Party of the 2005 Montreal World Congress of Gastroenterology". Can J Gastroenterol. 19 Suppl A: 5A–36A. PMID 16151544.
  6. Sauter GH, Moussavian AC, Meyer G, Steitz HO, Parhofer KG, Jüngst D (2002). "Bowel habits and bile acid malabsorption in the months after cholecystectomy". Am J Gastroenterol. 97 (7): 1732–5. doi:10.1111/j.1572-0241.2002.05779.x. PMID 12135027.
  7. Maiuri L, Raia V, Potter J, Swallow D, Ho MW, Fiocca R; et al. (1991). "Mosaic pattern of lactase expression by villous enterocytes in human adult-type hypolactasia". Gastroenterology. 100 (2): 359–69. PMID 1702075.
  8. RUBIN CE, BRANDBORG LL, PHELPS PC, TAYLOR HC (1960). "Studies of celiac disease. I. The apparent identical and specific nature of the duodenal and proximal jejunal lesion in celiac disease and idiopathic sprue". Gastroenterology. 38: 28–49. PMID 14439871.

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