What Is Anthrax?

Anthrax is an infectious disease that’s caused by bacteria. It’s very rare in the United States, but it can be very serious.

It usually only affects farm animals like cows and sheep. But it’s possible to become infected if you’re in contact with infected animals or products that come from them. You wouldn’t be at risk otherwise, unless you work with anthrax in a lab or are exposed to it because of terrorism.

Anthrax isn’t contagious, so you can’t spread it to other people.

You should see a doctor right away if you think you might have been exposed to it.

What Causes It?

Anthrax is caused by a type of bacteria called Bacillus anthracis. Again, it’s rare in the United States, but it can live in the soil.

The bacteria make spores, which are a form of the bacteria that live in a protective shell. These spores can survive for a long time, even years, in soil. You can get anthrax if spores get into your body, break open and release the bacteria, which make toxins (poison) that harm you.

How Would I Get It?

There are different ways. You could be exposed if you:

  • Breathe in the spores
  • Eat or drink something that’s tainted with the anthrax spores
  • Touch something that has the spores on it and they get into your body through cuts in your skin.
  • Inject tainted heroin (known as “injection anthrax,” it has happened only in northern Europe so far)

Most people who get anthrax work with infected animals, or with animal products like wool or hide.

What Are the Symptoms?

If you get anthrax through a cut or sore on your skin, you might have:

  • A group of small, itchy blisters or a bump that looks like a bug bite
  • A sore on your skin that shows up after the blisters (usually painless and appearing on the face, neck, arms, or hands)
  • Swelling around the sore

If you eat or drink something that contains the spores, such as the undercooked meat of an infected animal, your symptoms could include:

  • Fever, chills
  • Swelling in your neck or glands and pain when you swallow
  • Nausea, loss of appetite, and vomiting, which may be bloody
  • Diarrhea that may be bloody
  • Headache
  • Stomachache
  • Redness in your eyes and face
  • Fainting
  • Pain and swelling in your abdomen

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If you breathe in anthrax spores, this is the most dangerous situation. You could have:

If it worsens, you could also have other symptoms like shock or trouble breathing, or develop a condition called meningitis, which means there is inflammation in your brain and spinal cord. This can be life-threatening.

If you get anthrax by injecting illegal drugs like heroin, you might have:

  • A group of small blisters or bumps that may be itchy, or redness and swelling where you injected the drug
  • Fever and chills
  • A painless ulcer that replaces the bumps or blisters and has a black center
  • Pockets of pus around the injection site, either under the skin or in your muscle

If the disease gets worse, you could go into shock, develop meningitis, or your organs could stop working.

How Is It Diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks you have anthrax, you’ll get a blood test to check to see if you have the anthrax bacteria in your blood. You might also get other tests, depending on the part of your body that’s affected.

If you have skin symptoms, your doctor may take a small sample of the affected skin to test in a lab. You might get an X-ray of your chest or CT scan if your doctor thinks you might have inhalation anthrax. And a stool test can look for signs of anthrax bacteria in order to diagnose gastrointestinal anthrax.

If you might have meningitis caused by anthrax, you may need to get a spinal tap, in which your doctor takes a bit of your spinal fluid to test.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on December 29, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

KidsHealth.org: “What Is Anthrax?”

CDC: “Anthrax”

Mayo Clinic: “Anthrax”

MedlinePlus: “Anthrax”

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