Anthrax

Nature of the disease

Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax can be found naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world. People can get sick with anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. Contact with anthrax can cause severe illness in both humans and animals. Anthrax is not contagious, which means you can’t catch it like the cold or flu.

People get infected with anthrax when spores get into the body. When anthrax spores get inside the body, they can be “activated.” When they become active, the bacteria can multiply, spread out in the body, produce toxins (poisons), and cause severe illness. This can happen when people breathe in spores, eat food or drink water that is contaminated with spores, or get spores in a cut or scrape in the skin.

Causative agent of anthrax

Bacillus anthracis is the causative agent of anthrax

Clinical features of anthrax

The clinical features depend on the form of anthrax. Anthrax occurs in four forms: skin, inhalation, intestinal, and injection. The skin form presents with a small blister with surrounding swelling that often turns into a painless ulcer with a black center. The inhalation form presents with fever, chest pain, and shortness of breath. The intestinal form presents with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. The injection form presents with fever and an abscess at the site of drug injection.

Signs and symptoms of anthrax

Signs and symptoms of anthrax include:

  • A raised, itchy bump resembling an insect bite that quickly develops into a painless sore with a black center
  • Swelling in the sore and nearby lymph glands
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Severe, bloody diarrhea in the later stages of the disease
  • Sore throat and difficulty swallowing
  • Swollen neck

Diagnosis of anthrax

Diagnosis for anthrax includes:

  • Skin testing: A sample of fluid from a suspicious lesion on the skin or a small tissue sample (biopsy) may be tested in the lab for signs of anthrax.
  • Blood tests: A small amount of blood drawn is checked in a lab for anthrax bacteria.
  • Chest X-ray or computerized tomography (CT) scan: A chest X-ray or CT scan to help diagnose inhalation anthrax.
  • Stool testing: Checking a sample of stool for anthrax bacteria.
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture): Inserting a needle into the spinal canal and withdrawing a small amount of fluid. A spinal tap is usually done only to confirm a diagnosis of anthrax meningitis.

Incubation period of anthrax

The incubation period is typically 1 day for cutaneous anthrax and 1–7 days for pulmonary anthrax. Evidence from mass exposures indicates that incubation periods up to 60 days are possible for pulmonary anthrax (related to the delayed activation of inhaled spores).

Treatment of anthrax

Treatment for anthrax infection often requires a combination of antibiotics depending on the areas of the body that are affected by infection, age, overall health and other factors. Treatment is most effective when started as soon as possible. Although some cases of anthrax respond to antibiotics, advanced inhalation anthrax may not. By the later stages of the disease, the bacteria have often produced more toxins than drugs can eliminate.

Prevention of anthrax

Antibiotics are recommended to prevent infection in anyone exposed to the spores. Others include the use of anthrax vaccine and avoiding infected animals.

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