|Public Health Fact Sheet
What is anthrax?
Anthrax is a serious disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that forms spores. A bacterium is a very small organism made up of one cell. A spore is a cell that is dormant (asleep) but may come to life with the right conditions.
How is anthrax spread?
Anthrax is not known to spread from one person to another. It can be spread from animals and used as a weapon.
Anthrax from animals. Humans can become infected with anthrax by handling products from infected animals or by breathing in anthrax spores from infected animal products (like wool or animal skins, for example). People also can become infected with gastrointestinal anthrax by eating undercooked meat from infected animals.
Anthrax as a weapon. Anthrax also can be used as a weapon. This happened in the United States in 2001. Anthrax was deliberately spread through the postal system by sending letters with powder containing anthrax. This caused 22 cases of anthrax infection.
Who gets anthrax?
Anthrax rarely occurs in the U.S. There have been reports of animal infection in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota, but people who are exposed to dead animals and animal products from countries where anthrax is more common are at the highest risk. This includes countries in South and Central America; Southern and Eastern Europe; Asia; Africa; the Caribbean and the Middle East. However, anyone can get anthrax if they are exposed to contaminated wool, hides, leather or hair products of infected animals, or if they eat undercooked meat from infected animals.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms (warning signs) of anthrax are different depending on the type of the disease:
Cutaneous: The first symptom is a small sore that develops into a blister. The blister then develops into a skin ulcer with a black area in the center. The sore, blister and ulcer do not hurt.
Gastrointestinal: The first symptoms are nausea, loss of appetite, bloody diarrhea, and fever, followed by bad stomach pain.
Inhalation: The first symptoms of inhalation anthrax are like cold or flu symptoms and can include a sore throat, mild fever and muscle aches. Later symptoms include cough, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, tiredness and muscle aches. (Caution: Do not assume that just because a person has cold or flu symptoms that they have inhalation anthrax.).
How Soon Do Infected People Get Sick?
Symptoms can appear within 7 days of coming in contact with the bacterium for all three types of anthrax. For inhalation anthrax, symptoms can appear within a week or can take up to 42 days to appear.
How is it diagnosed?
Anthrax is diagnosed by isolating B. anthracis from the blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions or by measuring specific antibodies in the blood of suspected cases.
How Is Anthrax Treated?
Antibiotics are used to treat all three types of anthrax. Treatment of an ill person is usually a 60-day course of antibiotics. Success depends on the type of anthrax and how soon treatment begins.
Can Anthrax Be Prevented?
There is a vaccine to prevent anthrax, but it is not yet available for the general public. Anyone who may be exposed to anthrax, including certain members of the U.S. armed forces, laboratory workers, and workers who may enter or re-enter contaminated areas, may get the vaccine. Also, in the event of an attack using anthrax as a weapon, people exposed would get the vaccine.
A person who is exposed to anthrax, but is not yet sick, would be treated with antibiotics (such as ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin, doxycycline, or penicillin) combined with the anthrax vaccine to prevent anthrax infection.
What Should I Do if I Think I Have Anthrax?
If you are showing symptoms of anthrax infection, call your health-care provider right away.
What Should I Do if I Think I Have Been Exposed to Anthrax?
Contact local law enforcement immediately if you think that you may have been exposed to anthrax. This includes being exposed to a suspicious package or envelope that contains powder.
Where can you get more information?
Your Local Health Department
Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Epidemiologic Services Section at (877) 427-7317
Your doctor, nurse, or local health center
This fact sheet is for information only and is not intended for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation. If you have any questions about the disease described above or think that you may have an infection, consult with your healthcare provider. This fact sheet is based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s topic fact sheets. Version 02/2010