Anthrax is a rare, but severe illness caused by Bacillus anthracis, a spore-forming bacterium. Anthrax mainly affects wild game and livestock. Human beings can become infected through direct or indirect contact with diseased animals.
There is no proof that anthrax is spread from person to person, but lesions of the anthrax skin can likely be infectious through direct contact. The anthrax bacteria usually enter the body through a skin wound. Through consuming tainted meat or inhaling the spores, you can have become sick.
Signs and symptoms depending on how infected you are can range from skin sores to vomiting to shock. Prompt antibiotic treatment will cure most infections anthrax. It is more difficult to treat inhaled anthrax, and can be fatal.
There are four common anthrax infection routes, each with distinct signs and symptoms. Symptoms typically grow within seven days of bacterial exposure. The only exception is anthrax inhalation. It may take weeks before symptoms develop after exposure to inhalation anthrax.
An infection cutaneous anthrax reaches the body through a cut or other sore on your skin. It is the disease’s most popular path, by far. It’s also the mildest — cutaneous anthrax is rarely lethal with adequate care. Cutaneous Anthrax signs and symptoms include:
- A raised, itchy bump resembling an insect bite which quickly develops into a painless sore with a black center
- Swelling in the sore and surrounding lymph glands
This form of anthrax infection starts from an infected animal consuming undercooked meat. Symptoms and signs include:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Sore throat and difficulty swallowing
- Swollen neck
Inhalation (Pulmonary) Anthrax
When you breathe in anthrax spores inhalation anthrax evolves. It is the most dangerous way to contract the disease even it is mostly fatal even with treatment. Early symptoms and signs of anthrax inhalation include:
- Flu-like symptoms, like sore throat, fever, fatigue and muscle aches, which can last a few hours or days
- Mild chest discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood
- Painful swallowing
As the disease progresses, you may experience:
- High fever
- Trouble breathing
This is the most recent path of anthrax infection has been found. It is contracted by injecting illicit drugs, and has so far only been recorded in Europe. Initial signs and symptoms of anthrax by injection include:
- Redness at the area of injection
- Significant swelling
As the disease progresses, you may experience:
- Multiple organ failure
When to see a doctor
Many common illnesses start with symptoms that resemble the flu. The chances of getting your sore throat and aching muscles are extremely low due to anthrax.
When you think you might have been exposed — for instance, when you work in an area where anthrax is likely to occur — see your doctor for assessment and treatment immediately. In parts of the world where anthrax is common, seek prompt medical attention if you develop signs and symptoms of the disorder following exposure to animals or animal products. Early diagnosis and care are vitally necessary.
Anthrax spores are produced by anthrax bacteria in most parts of the world which occur naturally in soil. For years the spores can stay dormant until they find their way into a host. Common anthrax hosts include wild or domestic animals, including sheep, cattle, horses, and goats.
Though uncommon in the U.S., anthrax is still popular in the developing world, for example in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa.
Most human anthrax cases arise as a result of being exposed to contaminated animals or their meat or hides. A few people have produced anthrax in the United States, when creating traditional African drums from the skins of contaminated animals.
One of the only known cases of non-animal transmission occurred in the United States in 2001 when, after being exposed to spores sent via the mail, 22 people developed anthrax. Five of those infected starved to death.
More recently in Europe, heroin users contracted anthrax by consuming illicit drugs. Eighteen men had died of anthrax injection. Heroin sold in Europe typically originates in places where anthrax occurs naturally more commonly.
You must get in close touch with anthrax spores to contract anthrax. This is more likely if you:
- Are in the military and deployed to an region with a high risk of anthrax exposure
- Work with anthrax in a laboratory setting
- Handle animal hides, furs or wool from areas with high anthrax incidence
- Work in veterinary medicine, especially if you deal with livestock
- Inject illegal drugs, such as heroin
The most dangerous complication of anthrax is membrane and fluid inflammation which covers the brain and spinal cord, resulting in severe bleeding (hemorrhagic meningitis) and death.
Antibiotics are recommended for those exposed to the spores to avoid infection. Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), doxycycline (Monodox, Vibramycin, others), and levofloxacin (Levaquin) are approved for post-exposure anthrax prevention in adults and children by the Food and Drug Administration.
An anthrax vaccine for humans is available. The vaccine does not contain live bacteria and cannot contribute to infection, but it does cause side effects, ranging from injection site soreness to more serious allergic reactions.
The vaccine isn’t intended for the general public. Instead of this, it is reserved for military personnel, anthrax-worked scientists and people in other high-risk occupations.
Avoiding infected animals
When you live or travel in a country where anthrax is widespread and herd animals are not properly vaccinated, avoid contact as much as possible with the animal and animal skins. Also stop consuming meat which has not been cooked properly.