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Anthrax - Topic Overview

What are the symptoms? continued...

With inhalational anthrax, symptoms usually appear 1 to 7 days after exposure. (But it can take as long as 60 days).

  • At first you may feel like you have the flu, with a sore throat, a mild fever, and muscle aches. But you may also have shortness of breath, which is not common with the flu.3
  • Severe trouble breathing, high fever, and shock may occur 1 to 5 days later.
  • Death usually follows within a day or two.

With gastrointestinal anthrax, symptoms usually occur within a week after exposure.

  • At first you may have mouth ulcers, a sore throat, trouble swallowing, loss of appetite, vomiting, or a fever.
  • As the illness gets worse, you may have trouble breathing (because of swelling in the throat), bloody diarrhea or vomit, or belly pain caused by fluid buildup.
  • Shock and death may follow within a few days.

How is anthrax diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and about any work or other activities that may have put you at risk for exposure. If the doctor suspects you may have been exposed to anthrax, testing will be done to confirm exposure or infection. Public health officials also will be notified about a possible anthrax infection.

Anthrax is confirmed when the bacteria are identified from a culture of your blood, spinal fluid, skin sores, or mucus from your nose, airways, or lungs. If results of a culture aren't clear, you may need other blood tests or a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. A skin ulcer may be biopsied.

If your doctor thinks that you have inhalational anthrax, you may have a chest X-ray or a CT scan.

How is it treated?

Antibiotics are used to treat all types of anthrax.

Anyone who is infected needs to be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible. Starting treatment before symptoms begin may make the illness less severe and prevent death. Treatment may also include supportive care in the hospital.

Anyone who has been exposed to anthrax spores but is not infected should be treated with antibiotics and a few doses of the vaccine to prevent infection. Not everyone who has been exposed to anthrax will get sick. But because there's no way to know who will get sick and who won't, anyone who is directly exposed will get treatment. If you think that you have been exposed, call your local law enforcement agency and your doctor right away. Don't take antibiotics without talking to your doctor first.

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