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Anthrax - Topic Overview

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.

Can anthrax be prevented?

In the U.S., the anthrax vaccine(What is a PDF document?) is used to protect only the small number of people who are at higher risk for exposure. These include:

  • Some military personnel.
  • Some lab workers.
  • Some people who come in contact with animals from other countries.

The vaccine is not available to the general public at this time. The risk of exposure to anthrax is extremely low.

The bioterrorism attacks in 2001 made many people nervous about opening their mail. If you receive a piece of mail that contains a powdery substance or seems suspicious, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you put down the piece of mail and not touch it again. Then, leave the room, wash your hands with soap and water, and call 911 to find out what to do next.

If you have concerns about anthrax, you can find the most current information through the CDC (http://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/anthrax).

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 31, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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