Anthrax is a serious infectious illness caused by a microbe called Bacillus anthracis that lives in soil. Anthrax became more widely known in 2001 when anthrax was used as a biological weapon and sent in the U.S. mail. The anthrax attack resulted in five deaths and 17 illnesses in the United States, making it one of the worst biological attacks in the country’s history.
However, anthrax is uncommon in the United States. It’s most often found in some farming areas in Central and South America, the Caribbean, southern Europe, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and central and southwestern Asia.
Anthrax illness is more common in farm animals than people. You can get anthrax through indirect or direct contact by inhaling, touching, or ingesting Bacillus anthracis. You can come into contact with anthrax through animals or biological weapons.
You can get anthrax by touching farm animals or game animals infected with anthrax. You can also become infected by inhaling it. In addition, you can get anthrax by eating undercooked meat from animals infected with anthrax.
Anthrax can be used as a biological weapon. However, this is very rare. There has not been an anthrax attack in the United States since the 2001 attack.
You have an increased risk of getting anthrax if you:
- work with anthrax in a laboratory
- work with livestock as a veterinarian (not likely in the United States)
- handle animal skins from areas with a high risk of anthrax (not in the United States)
- handle game animals
- are in the military on duty in an area that carries a high risk of anthrax exposure
The symptoms of anthrax exposure depend on the mode of contact. Symptoms include:
Cutaneous (Skin) Contact
Cutaneous anthrax is anthrax contracted through contact with the skin. If your skin comes into contact with anthrax, you may get a small, raised sore that’s itchy. It usually looks like an insect bite. The sore quickly develops into a blister. It then becomes a skin ulcer with a black center. This doesn’t usually cause pain. The symptoms typically develop within one to five days after exposure.
The symptoms of gastrointestinal anthrax usually develop within a week of exposure. Symptoms of anthrax ingestion include:
- loss of appetite
- swelling in the neck
- bloody diarrhea
- severe abdominal pain
People who inhale anthrax usually develop symptoms within a week. But symptoms can develop as quickly as two days after exposure and up to 45 days after exposure. The symptoms of inhaling anthrax include:
- cold symptoms
- a sore throat
- a fever
- achy muscles
- a cough
- shortness of breath
Tests to diagnose anthrax include:
- blood tests
- skin tests
- stool samples
- a spinal tap, which is a procedure that tests a small amount of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord
- chest X-rays
- a CT scan
- endoscopy, which is a test that uses a small tube with an attached camera to examine the esophagus or intestines
If your doctor detects anthrax in your body, the test results will be sent to a public health department laboratory for confirmation.
Treatment for anthrax depends on if you’ve developed symptoms or not.
If you’re exposed to anthrax but you have no symptoms, your doctor will begin preventive treatment. Preventive treatment consists of antibiotics and the anthrax vaccine.
If you’ve been exposed to anthrax and you have symptoms, your doctor will treat you with antibiotics for 60 days.
Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics if it’s caught early. The problem is that many people don’t seek treatment until it’s too late to treat. Without treatment, the chances of death from anthrax increase. The risk of dying from cutaneous anthrax is 20 percent if it isn’t treated. If you have gastrointestinal anthrax, the chances of dying are 25 to 60 percent. The risk of dying from inhaling anthrax is approximately 75 percent.
You can reduce your risk of anthrax by having the anthrax vaccine.
The only anthrax vaccine that’s approved by the FDA is the BioThrax vaccine. It’s available to the general public. The anthrax vaccine is given to people who work in situations that put them at high risk of contact with anthrax, such as military personnel and scientists. The U.S. government has a stockpile of anthrax vaccine in case of a biological attack or other type of mass exposure. The anthrax vaccine is 91 percent effective in humans after two vaccinations.