What is Anthrax?
Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, which can form spores that can survive in the environment for long periods of time. Anthrax infection can occur in three forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation (lung), and gastrointestinal (stomach and intestines). Humans usually contract the disease when handling products from contaminated animals. If people have intentionally been exposed, as in a bioterrorist release, breathing in spores is the most likely route of exposure that might lead to a serious infection (inhalation anthrax).
What’s the difference between exposure and infection?
Exposure to anthrax may occur if a person has been in contact with or in the presence of anthrax spores. It will depend on how the anthrax was released, where it was released, and where you were relative to the release site. Being exposed does not necessarily mean that you will become infected. People may be exposed without actually being infected. It usually takes a lot of spores to actually infect a person.
How will I know if I need to be tested or need any treatment?
You will need to be tested and/or treated only if it is determined that you have actually been exposed or were likely to have been exposed to the anthrax spores. If you are determined to be at risk, you will be given antibiotics to try and prevent an infection from developing, along with verbal and written instructions about taking the antibiotics. Your health care provider and the health department will make that determination.
Symptoms usually appear within 1-10 days after exposure. In rare cases, symptoms have developed up to 60 days later. Common symptoms of anthrax include:
- Fever (temperature greater than 100°F)
- Flu-like symptoms (cough, fatigue, muscle aches), nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- A sore, especially on your face, arms, or hands
Contact your doctor and either the Orange County Health Department (919-245-2400) or the NC Communicable Disease Branch immediately if you develop any of these symptoms and think that you were potentially exposed to anthrax spores.
Is anthrax contagious?
Inhalation anthrax (caused by breathing in the spores) and gastrointestinal anthrax (caused by ingesting spores or bacteria) are NOT spread from person to person. Even if you develop symptoms of inhalation anthrax or gastrointestinal anthrax, you are NOT contagious to other persons, regardless of whether you are taking antibiotics or not. Cutaneous anthrax does NOT usually develop into a serious infection if it is treated with antibiotics. Discharge from the skin sore(s) caused by cutaneous anthrax can contain anthrax spores that can be controlled by proper bandaging.
Where can I find more information?
- Centers for Disease Control/Bioterrorism
- CDC Bioterrorism Agents List/Anthrax
- NC Center for Public Health Preparedness
- US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)
- US Postal Service/Suspicious Mail