What is Anthrax?

Anthrax is a bacterial infection caused by Bacillus anthracis bacteria, bacteria that live in soil, on plants and in water, usually in a resting phase called a spore. Anthrax most commonly affects wild and domesticated animals such as sheep, livestock and goats when these animals inhale the bacterial spores or ingest the bacteria while grazing.

Anthrax does, however, affect people if they come in contact with infected animals or animal products. When the Anthrax bacteria enter the body, the bacteria become activated and begin to multiply, producing toxins that cause illness.

How do you get Anthrax?

There are four types of Anthrax infection, depending on how a person comes in contact with the bacteria. 1. An individual can become infected with Anthrax by coming in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products such as wool, meat or hides and being infected through an open cut or sore (cutaneous Anthrax).

  1. An individual can become infected by inhaling Bacillus anthracis spores (inhalation Anthrax).
  2. An individual can become infected by eating undercooked meat of infected animals not vaccinated against Anthrax and/or of animals not inspected before slaughter (gastrointestinal Anthrax).
  3. Cases of individuals becoming infected with Anthrax through injection of contaminated heroin (injection Anthrax) have also been documented.

Anthrax is not contagious; you cannot catch Anthrax from another infected individual.

Susceptibility and Resistance

All persons are susceptible, however those working around infected animals or contaminated animal products are at increased risk of contracting Anthrax.

Incubation Period

The incubation period for Anthrax is 1-43 days.

What are the Symptoms?

Anthrax symptoms vary based on the type of infection.

  1. Cutaneous/injection Anthrax symptoms include grouping of small blisters/sores that may be swollen and itchy and a sore with a black, painless center that may appear after the small blisters. Sores most often appear on neck, face, arms or hands.
  2. Inhalation Anthrax symptoms include fever, chills, sweating, chest pain, shortness of breath, confusion, cough, nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, headache, tiredness and body aches.
  3. Gastrointestinal Anthrax symptoms include fever, chills, flushed face, swelling of the neck or neck glands, sore throat, nausea, vomiting (could include blood in vomit), diarrhea (could include blood in stool), headache and stomach pain.

Preventative Measures

There are 3 anthrax vaccines available for human use. These are produced in the USA, the UK and Russia. However, these vaccines are generally unavailable in most countries. In general, the vaccine is reserved for military use or for civilians (usually between 18 and 65 years old, who are not pregnant or nursing) who are at an increased risk of contracting the disease such as laboratory workers, farmers and veterinarians etc.


The individual should seek medical care when they suspect that they have been exposed to Anthrax, even before symptoms appear. Early treatment significantly improves recovery outcomes. If left untreated, Anthrax can spread throughout the body and cause severe illness or death.

Diagnosis of Anthrax can be done by measuring Bacillus anthracis antibodies in the blood. Testing for Bacillus anthracis in a sample of blood, spinal fluid, respiratory secretions or through a skin lesion swab, can also be used to diagnose an Anthrax infection. Additionally, diagnosis of inhalation Anthrax can be done by x-ray.

An antibiotic or a combination of antibiotics are used to treat Anthrax. In addition, antitoxins can be used to eliminate Anthrax toxins produced in the body.

Often cutaneous Anthrax can be treated without hospitalization, however, gastrointestinal, injection or inhalation Anthrax are more serious forms and likely require hospitalization.

After exposure to and recovery from Anthrax, vaccination against Anthrax may also be recommended to reduce the risk of any further infection.



Where Does It Commonly Occur?

Since Anthrax occurs worldwide in domestic and wild animals, Anthrax infection in humans can occur wherever an individual comes in contact with an infected animal or animal product. However, Anthrax is most common in agricultural areas of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southwestern Asia, southern and eastern Europe, and the Caribbean where livestock are not routinely vaccinated against Anthrax.