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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Nov 5, 2023.

What is anthrax?

Anthrax is an infection caused by bacteria. The bacteria are found in soil and spread from animals to humans. Cutaneous anthrax, or skin infection, is the most common. Lung infection is rare and may develop if you breathe in the bacteria. Intestine infection is also rare and may develop if you eat food that contains the bacteria. Antibiotics help treat the infection caused by the anthrax bacteria.

What increases my risk for anthrax?

  • Contact with infected animals, such as their hair or hides
  • Contact with the organism itself
  • Travel to or work in a high-risk area
  • Exposure during a bioterrorist event
  • Injecting heroin

What are the signs and symptoms of anthrax?

You may have a fever, headache, muscle aches, or swollen glands with any of the following 3 types of infection.

  • Skin infection:
    • Raised, itchy bump, like an insect bite
    • One or more blisters with swelling around them
    • Painless ulcer covered by a black scab
  • Lung infection:
    • Cough or trouble breathing
    • A cold sweat
    • Chest pain
    • Stiff neck
    • Confusion or dizziness
  • Intestine infection:
    • Severe sore throat
    • Vomiting blood
    • Loss of appetite
    • Severe abdominal pain
    • Blood in your bowel movement
  • Injection infection:
    • Swelling at the injection site
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Sweating

How is anthrax diagnosed?

  • Blood tests will show the bacteria causing your infection.
  • A sample of an open sore or mucus you cough up may show the anthrax bacteria.
  • An x-ray or CT may show signs of an anthrax infection. You may be given contrast liquid to help your chest and abdomen show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

Should I get the anthrax vaccine?

The anthrax vaccine helps prevent all forms of infection. The vaccine is recommended for people at high risk for infection. This includes anyone who works directly with the bacteria, such as in a lab. Military personnel and anyone who travels to high-risk areas should also be vaccinated. Farmers, veterinarians, and livestock workers should be vaccinated. The vaccine is not recommended for anyone younger than 18 years.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) or have someone take you to the emergency department if:

  • You have severe shortness of breath.
  • You have hives or swelling of your face or throat.
  • You are dizzy or feel weak.

When should I call my doctor?

  • Your abdomen is swollen, tender, and hard.
  • You have severe pain.
  • You vomit blood or have blood in your bowel movements.
  • You have a sudden, high fever.
  • Your symptoms do not go away or they get worse, even after treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.