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Anthrax is a type of infection most often considered very deadly. It is caused by a kind of bacterium known as Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax outbreaks have been recorded throughout history, with the latest having been in 2001 when Anthrax spores were used as a biological weapon. The spores in powder form were enclosed in letters and mailed to several people via U.S. mail, killing 5 individuals in the process. It was considered to have been part of the terrorist attacks closely related to the onslaught on the World Trade Center in September 11 of that year.

Bacillus anthracis is found in soil and contained in spore cells that otherwise remains dormant unless activated by certain conditions. In fact, Anthrax can survive for decades until an animal ingests it. It normally affects livestock such as horses, goats, hogs, and sheep, but can also inflict humans, as well, often with fatal results.

While not dangerous to humans in its dormant state, if it remains untreated, it can spread throughout all the body's blood vessels and cause blood poisoning. Considered an acute infection, the Anthrax bacteria secrete toxins that cause the build-up of fluid all throughout the tissues of the body. This toxic fluid kills living cells and causes death. One type of Anthrax infection, known as Gastrointestinal Anthrax, is considerably more fatal. Gastrointestinal Anthrax is known to cause nausea and vomiting, coupled with a fever, then eventual abdominal bleeding, death of the body's tissues, septicemia, and death.


There are three different forms of Anthrax, and their symptoms usually manifest themselves within a week after exposure. Contamination through inhalation of Anthrax spores is also possible, with symptoms taking up to 40 days to occur.

One form of the most common forms of infection, Cutaneous Anthrax attacks the skin. It results from direct skin contact with Bacillus anthracis, where the spores may gain entrance to the body via any cuts, abrasions or blisters a person may have. When infection starts, it manifests itself through an itchy bump in the skin that may look like an insect bite. Within a couple of days, the bump becomes an open sore with a dark center. This sore is often painless.

Cutaneous Anthrax occurs in 95% of all Anthrax cases, and it is the mildest form of Anthrax, with less than 1% mortality rate. Left untreated for a period of time, it may spread throughout the body and cause fever and chills, as well as swollen lymph glands that occur in areas of the body above the Anthrax sore.
Image: Anthrax

Eating the undercooked meat of an animal that has been infected by the Anthrax bacterium causes one fatal form of Anthrax. Gastrointestinal Anthrax starts by causing inflammation of the intestines, accompanied by intestinal ulcers similar to sores that form in Cutaneous Anthrax. An infected person will display symptoms of loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, and eventually vomiting up blood and excessive bloody diarrhea. This form of Anthrax is fatal, with nearly half of the cases succumbing to death.

The third form of Anthrax is the kind that is inhaled. Pulmonary Anthrax is contracted when people inhale spores of the bacteria. A person who has contracted this form of the infection will initially display the symptoms of the flu, such as a sore throat, muscle aches, mild fever, and fatigue. These flu-like symptoms will usually last anywhere from a few hours to up to a couple of days, and eventually subside.

After this first stage, the disease starts to progress by producing symptoms of a high fever, and difficulty in breathing. The infected person eventually goes into shock as the lymph nodes in the chest and the lungs are slowly destroyed by the bacteria. Pulmonary Anthrax may also spread throughout the bloodstream until it reaches the brain, resulting in meningitis. This form of Anthrax is fatal in 75% of people who contract it, even if it is detected and treated immediately. Of the 11 people in the United States who were exposed to powdered spores of the bacteria enclosed in envelopes, only six were able to survive.

Anthrax is not a contagious infection, as it cannot spread through the body secretions of infected individuals, through contact with a person who has Anthrax, or through exposure to the bacteria. Infection can only be contracted through direct contact with spores of Bacillus anthracis spores, such as the spores entering through a cut or wound in the skin, through inhalation, or by ingesting meat from an infected animal.

People who work closely with livestock are highly at risk, such as farmers and veterinarians, particularly if they handle the products and by-products of animals that have been infected or exposed to the bacteria. Those who eat the meat of an infected animal can also contract the infection.


There are several tests with which to diagnose an Anthrax infection. One is through skin biopsy, where a sample of a suspected Anthrax sore can be laboratory tested to find traces of Cutaneous Anthrax. Testing of an infected person's saliva can also be examined, as well as blood tests conducted to check for the presence of Bacillus anthracis in a 6-hour or 24-hour culture.

Other tests include chest x-rays or CT scans to check the lungs and lymph nodes in the chest for any evidence of Pulmonary Anthrax; endoscopy or stool samples to enable doctors to check for the presence of Gastrointestinal Anthrax, or a spinal tap to test spinal fluid for the presence of meningitis caused by the Anthrax bacteria.

While early detection of an Anthrax infection and immediate treatment with antibiotics can impede the spread of the infection throughout the body, Pulmonary Anthrax that is contracted through inhalation is considered extremely difficult to cure and is often the cause of fatalities.


The three forms of Anthrax are treated with either oral or intravenous antibiotics, depending on the severity of symptoms, and treatment is successful if the infection is caught and treated as soon as diagnosed.

The normal course of treatment with antibiotics will last as long as 60 days, and scientists are currently working on the development of an antitoxic agent that is geared at neutralizing the toxin produced by the Bacillus anthracis.
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