A photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis bacteria using Gram stain technique. Anthrax is diagnosed by isolating B. anthracis from the blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions or by measuring specific antibodies in the blood of persons with suspected cases.

What is Anthrax?

Anthrax is a dangerous, infectious disease caused by bacteria called Bacillius anthracis. The bacteria is found naturally in soil and can affect both domestic and wild animals. Humans can procure anthrax through contact with infected animals. It is not contagious. Animals come into contact with anthrax through contaminated soil, plants, or water. Anthrax can be prevented in domestic animals through vaccinations.

How do people get infected with anthrax?

When bacterial spores enter the body, they become “activated” and multiply, creating toxins and spreading illness. This happens when people breathe in spores, eat food or drink water contaminated with spores, or get spores through cuts and scrapes in their skin.

Where is Anthrax found?

Anthrax is very uncommon in the United States. It is most common in agricultural regions in central and south America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southwestern Asia, southern and eastern Europe, and the Caribbean.

Types of Anthrax

  • Cutaneous Anthrax: Contracted through a cut or scrape. This happens when a person handles infected animals or animal products. This is the most common form and is the most easily treatable. Without treatment, 20% of patients will die. However, with proper treatment, almost all patients with cutaneous anthrax live.
  • Inhalation Anthrax: Happens when a person breathes in spores in an environment with infected animals or animal products. This is the most dangerous form of anthrax. Without treatment, only 10-15% of infected persons will live. With proper treatment, up to 55% of patients will live.
  • Gastrointestinal Anthrax: When a person eats raw or undercooked meat from an infected animal, they can develop gastrointestinal anthrax. Without treatment, about half of patients will die. With proper treatment, 60% of people survive. Not common in the United States.
  • Injection Anthrax: This is the most recent form of anthrax and is identified in heroin-injecting drug users in northern Europe. It is harder to recognize and treat. There are no reported cases in the United States.

Symptoms

  • Cutaneous Anthrax: groups of itchy blisters or bumps, swelling around sores, painless ulcer with a black center after blisters/bumps, most often on the face, neck, arms, or hands
  • Inhalation Anthrax: fever and chills, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, confusion or dizziness, cough, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, headache, sweats, extreme tiredness, body aches
  • Gastrointestinal Anthrax: fever and chills, swollen neck or neck glands, sore throat, painful swallowing, hoarseness, nausea, vomiting, bloody vomiting, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, headache, flushing and red eyes, stomach pain/swelling, fainting
  • Injection Anthrax: fever and chills, group of itchy blisters or bumps near injection site, painless skin sore with black center after blisters/bumps, swelling around sore, abscesses under skin near injection site

Diagnoses

If anthrax is suspected, X-rays or CT scans can help determine inhalation anthrax. The only way to confirm diagnoses is to measure blood toxins or test for Bacillius anthracis through blood tests, skin lesion swabs, spinal fluid, or respiratory secretions.

Who is at risk for Anthrax?

  • People who handle animal products
  • Veterinarians
  • Livestock Producers
  • Laboratory Professionals
  • Mail handlers, military personnel, and response workers

Prevention

Antibiotics

  • Antibiotics work by either killing the anthrax or preventing growth which leads to death of the bacteria.
  • Takes up to 60 days for full prevention.

Vaccines

  • A vaccine is currently not available to the general public. The vaccine is approved by the FDA for at-risk-adults before exposure to anthrax.
  • The FDA has not currently approved the vaccine for use after exposure. If there was an anthrax outbreak or emergency, it is possible a vaccine may be given.

Treatment

Antibiotics (see Prevention above)

Antitoxin: Target anthrax toxins in the body

What should I do if I think I have been exposed to Anthrax?

Visit your physician immediately if you think you may have contracted anthrax. If you are already showing symptoms, get medical care as quickly as possible. Anthrax is not contagious.

For more information on anthrax, developments, and threats, visit http://www.cdc.gov/anthrax/index.html.