Last updated: October 12, 2022

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What is anthrax?

Anthrax is a disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium. It most commonly occurs in hoofed animals, such as cows and horses. It also can infect humans.

How does a person become infected with anthrax?

There are three ways:

  • By inhaling the anthrax spores (inhalation)
  • Through a cut or break in the skin while in direct contact with the anthrax bacterium (cutaneous)
  • By eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with the anthrax bacterium (intestinal). This form of infection is extremely rare.

Can anthrax be spread from person to person?

No. Direct person-to-person spread of anthrax is extremely unlikely. People who have been in contact with a person ill with anthrax generally do not need to be immunized or treated, unless they were also exposed to the same source of infection.

What are the symptoms of inhaled anthrax?

The early symptoms of inhalation anthrax are very similar to many other illnesses, such as a common cold. They include fever, cough, difficulty breathing and chest discomfort. If you have these symptoms, it does not mean you have anthrax. People who have inhalation anthrax will usually start to feel much sicker two to four days after the first symptoms start. They will start to have a very difficult time breathing and may go into shock.

What are the symptoms of skin (cutaneous) anthrax?

Skin anthrax starts off as a reddish raised lesion that enlarges into a round ulcer by the second day of the rash. Very small blisters may appear around the larger lesion. A painless, black scab often forms next and will fall off in one to two weeks, usually without leaving a scar. If you have a rash that fits this description, contact your health care provider. Infection may spread to the bloodstream, causing fever, chills, nausea, sweating and shock.

What are the symptoms of intestinal anthrax?

This infection causes intestinal inflammation. Initial symptoms are nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and severe diarrhea.

How long after exposure do symptoms occur?

It varies. Incubation is usually one to seven days; however, symptoms may not occur for up to two months.

What antibiotics are used to treat anthrax?

Penicillins, cipropfloxacin, doxycycline and tetracyclines usually are used. They are available only by prescription.

Should I take antibiotics just to be safe?

No. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can lead to your resistance to the antibiotics. The antibiotics will lose their effectiveness.

Should I buy a gas mask?

There is no need to buy or use a gas mask.

Is there a vaccine to protect people against anthrax?

Yes. Only certain military personnel and people whose work puts them at risk for anthrax exposure may get the vaccine. Routine vaccination against anthrax is not recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

I have a suspicious letter — what should I do?

Do not open, empty or shake the letter. Do not carry it, show it to others or allow others to examine it. Above all, do not sniff, touch, taste, or look closely at it or any contents that may have spilled.

Put the package or envelope down on a stable surface, leave the room and close the door to prevent others from entering. If possible, shut off the ventilation.

Wash your hands with soap and water. Call 911.

You do not need to contact your doctor or go to the emergency room unless you feel sick, or if the police notify you that the letter contained anthrax.

Additional information may be obtained at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You may also call the Department of Health at 410-222-7254, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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