What is Anthrax?

Anthrax is a highly infectious disease. It is a bacterial infection that is caused by a bacterium known as bacillus anthracis. It is considered to be a rare disease because of the low number of cases worldwide on an average year. However, it is highly dangerous if it is contracted. Person-to-person is not common and can occur only through contact with infectious discharges from wounds.

Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax develops from spores which can be found in soil. However, humans most often contract the disease from contact with animals (both wild and livestock), or when consuming meat of infected animals  or drinking contaminated water.

Specifically, there are different common methods of exposure to the bacillus anthracis bacterium that could result in an anthrax infection. Cutaneous anthrax infection means it occurs through skin contact. Oftentimes, the bacteria will enter the body through a sore or break in the skin. A person can also contract anthrax by eating contaminated meat that is undercooked (known as gastrointestinal infection). The bacteria can also be inhaled or breathed in (pulmonary anthrax) or injected through the use of contaminated needles in illegal IV drug use.

What are the Symptoms of Anthrax?

The symptoms of anthrax depend on the way it is contracted.

Cutaneous anthrax symptoms

For cutaneous anthrax, symptoms can include skin reddening or swelling similar to a bug bite, or a skin ulcer that becomes blackened or brown due to the tissue dying. When a person has gastrointestinal anthrax they may lose their appetite, feel nausea and abdominal pain, vomit, develop bloody diarrhea, or have neck swelling and trouble swallowing.

Pulmonary anthrax symptoms

Pulmonary anthrax has some symptoms that differ from gastrointestinal anthrax including feeling short of breath, chest pain, fever, sore throat, muscle aches, nausea, and extreme fatigue. In extreme cases, the person may also start to cough up blood, have serious trouble breathing, and could even go into shock. Meningitis could also occur. When anthrax is injected, there can be severe swelling, organ failure, and shock.

Anthrax Causes

Anthrax is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called bacillus anthacis. This bacteria can lay dormant for decades in soil or elsewhere in the outdoors, and only becomes active when it enters the body of a human or animal, at which point it begins to multiply and releases toxins which begin to attack the body.

People can become infected with anthrax when they breathe in the bacillus anthacis spores, consume food or water contaminated with spores, or get spores into the skin via a scrape a cut. However, anthrax is not contagious, which means it is not passed from one person to another in the way that a common cold or flu is.

How is Anthrax Treated?

Treating anthrax is accomplished using a combination of different antibiotics and other treatments for symptoms of the disease. The earlier treatment begins, the more successful the outcome. In some cases of advanced anthrax acquired via inhalation cannot be treated effectively because the toxin levels are too high in the body.

Anthrax Prevention

Anthrax is incredibly rare in the US and tends to be found most frequently in agricultural areas of Central and South America. Individuals who work in agriculture, particularly with animals, in these regions can take steps to reduce their risk of being infected.

Firstly, it is important to wear appropriate face masks when dealing with animal materials such as hides, hair and wool, which could be contaminated with the spores. This will help to prevent inhalation of the spores. Secondly, any scrapes or cuts to the skin should be bandaged or covered before dealing with materials, animal products or animals which could have been contaminated.

Meat from animals which have been infected with anthrax won’t necessarily cause consumers to become infected, provided that the meat is thoroughly cooked. Raw or undercooked meat, such as rare steak, could cause gastrointestinal anthrax if the animal was infected, which is why thorough cooking of meat is vital if there is any concern that the meat could be contaminated.

In the US, anthrax infection via consumption of meat is incredibly rare, since it is recommended that animals are vaccinated against the infection each year in areas which have had anthrax outbreaks in the past. Livestock farmers are strongly advised to have their animals vaccinated to minimize the risk of being infected themselves.

Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2016
Last Updated:
November 08, 2017
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