Anthrax Illness

How do I determine if I was exposed to anthrax?
The illness a person gets when they are infected with Bacillus anthracis depends on how the bacteria got into the person's body. There are 3 different types of anthrax disease:
  • Cutaneous anthrax is caused when the anthrax bacteria come into direct contact with skin that has a cut or break in it. Cutaneous anthrax begins within 1-7 days after exposure and first causes a raised, itchy bump that resembles an insect bite. Within 1-2 days after the appearance of the bump, a small blister develops. This blister then becomes a painless sore with a black center. Lymph glands in the area of the infection may swell.
  • Inhalational anthrax is the most serious form of anthrax and is caused by inhaling anthrax bacteria into the lungs. Initial symptoms usually begin 1-6 days after infection, but can occur as late as 60 days after exposure. Symptoms include:
    • Chest discomfort
    • Chills
    • Cough
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Fever
    • Headache
    • Weakness
    Without treatment, severe breathing problems and death usually result. Inhalation anthrax is not contagious (spread person-to-person).
  • Intestinal anthrax is caused by eating meat from an animal that has died of anthrax or by drinking other foods or liquids contaminated with anthrax bacteria. It causes:
    • Diarrhea
    • Fever
    • Nausea
    • Pain in the abdomen
    • Vomiting
    Intestinal anthrax symptoms appear within 1-7 days after exposure.
If untreated, each of these forms of anthrax can spread to the blood, brain, or spine and cause severe illness or death. Persons are considered exposed to anthrax if they have inhaled or come into direct contact with anthrax bacteria. There are tests to detect anthrax in the environment or substances and these tests will be done as rapidly as possible by Public Health to determine if anthrax is present. Environmental testing to detect anthrax can provide preliminary results within several hours and final results in about 2 days.

In most instances the likelihood of true exposure to anthrax is extremely small and no treatment is needed. If evidence suggests that a true anthrax exposure has occurred, Public Health will make recommendations for antibiotic treatment of persons exposed to anthrax until results of laboratory tests are available.

Antibiotic treatment should be stopped if environmental tests show no exposure to anthrax has occurred. If a true anthrax exposure is confirmed, antibiotic treatment must continue for the duration specified in Public Health recommendations, usually 30 days or longer.