Anthrax is a rare infection that can be deadly. It leads to swelling, bleeding, and tissue death.
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Certain bacteria and its spores cause anthrax. They are found in soil and animals. The spores can get into the body:
- Through breaks in the skin
- By breathing them in
- By eating raw or undercooked meat that has spores
The spores multiply and release toxins when they are in the body.
The risk of anthrax is higher in people who:
- Live in or travel to places where it is common, such as:
- Sub-Saharan Africa
- The Caribbean
- Southern and Eastern Europe
- South and Central America
- Work with animals and animal hides
- Work with the bacteria in labs
- Are exposed to criminal or terrorist acts
Symptoms start within a few days after infection.
Skin symptoms may be:
- A raised, round, itchy bump that looks like an insect bite
- Skin sores with a black center and a clear or pinkish fluid discharge
- Swelling around the wound
- Swollen, painful lymph nodes
Symptoms from breathing the spores may be:
- Tiredness or weakness
- Soreness and swelling in the throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Fever and chills
- Headache and muscle aches
Other symptoms begin later such as:
- Severe breathing problems
- Chest pain
Symptoms from eating raw or undercooked meat that has spores may be:
- Swelling in the neck
- Whitish ulcers in the throat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Belly pain
- Bloody diarrhea
The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. A physical exam may be done. The doctor may give tests to rule out other causes.
Tests to diagnose anthrax may be:
- Blood tests
- Tests of fluids, stool, wounds, or tissues
- Imaging tests, such as chest x-rays
Treatment will start right away. It will involve:
- Antibiotics—to treat the infection
- Antibodies—to target bacteria (from breathing in the spores)
- Cleaning and bandaging skin sores
- Supportive care—to maintain heart function, blood pressure, and oxygen
The risk of anthrax may be lowered by:
- Avoiding contact with infected animals and their products
- Not touching anthrax wounds
- Handling suspicious mail carefully
A vaccine may be given to some people at high risk for anthrax.
- Anthrax. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/anthrax.
- Anthrax. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/anthrax.
- Anthrax. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/gram-positive-bacilli/anthrax.
- Bower WA, Schiffer J, et al. Use of anthrax vaccine in the United States: recommendations of the advisory committee on immunization practices, 2019. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2019;68(4):1-14.
- David L. Horn, MD, FACP
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