Bacillus anthracis bacteria cause anthrax, a rare, potentially fatal disease and a potential bioterrorism threat. Different types — cutaneous (skin), gastrointestinal and inhalation — have different symptoms. Military members and certain workers can get an anthrax vaccine. Fast treatment with antibiotics and other therapies can save lives.
Anthrax (pronounced “AN-thraks”) is an infectious disease caused by exposure to Bacillus anthracis bacteria. The bacteria are dormant, or inactive, in soil. Disease from anthrax mostly affects animals that graze on land that has the bacteria and is extremely rare in the United States.
People can become infected through inhaled bacteria spores, contaminated food or water, or skin wounds. Antibiotics are the first line of treatment for this potentially deadly infection. There are other treatments, including a vaccine.
The types of anthrax reflect the different ways the bacteria enter your body. Anthrax types include:
Anthrax is found all over the world, although the disease is extremely rare in the United States. Disease outbreaks tend to occur in developing countries that don’t vaccinate livestock against the infection. These areas include:
A bioterrorism anthrax attack using anthrax spores is a possibility. In 2001, a U.S. military researcher mailed envelopes containing anthrax powder to members of Congress and the media. Five of the 22 people who developed cutaneous or inhalation anthrax died. Federal agencies continue to work to prevent future anthrax attacks.
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Anthrax symptoms vary depending on the type. Symptoms typically appear within one week of exposure. Sometimes, signs of inhalation anthrax aren’t noticeable for two months. Depending on the type, symptoms include:
Bacillus anthracis bacteria cause anthrax. The bacteria produce spores that can live in the ground for years. Wild animals like deer, and livestock such as cattle or sheep, can inhale or ingest the dormant (inactive) spores while grazing.
After mixing with bodily fluids, anthrax bacteria activate, multiply and spread throughout your body. The bacteria cause a toxic, potentially deadly reaction. The same process happens to people who inhale, ingest or come into skin contact with the spores.
Anthrax isn’t contagious like chickenpox or the flu. You can’t catch anthrax from being around someone who’s infected. Rarely, people develop cutaneous anthrax after coming into direct contact with another person’s infected skin lesion.
Certain people are more at risk for exposure to anthrax, including:
Untreated anthrax can be deadly. Complications vary depending on the anthrax type:
Most forms of anthrax respond well to treatment. If you think you’ve been exposed, call your healthcare provider immediately. Fast treatment with antibiotics can stop the infection from developing. Anthrax treatments include:
The anthrax vaccine is 90% effective at preventing infection. The vaccine is only available to people between the ages of 18 and 65 who work in high-risk professions, such as farmers and livestock handlers, military members, researchers who study the bacteria, veterinarians and others as listed above. You receive five doses of the vaccine over 18 months. Afterward, you’ll need an annual booster shot. The vaccine also stops infection if you’ve knowingly been exposed to anthrax. In the United States, livestock that graze in anthrax-prone areas, such as certain parts of Texas, receive a different anthrax vaccine made for animals.
The anthrax vaccine isn’t available to the general public. If you’re traveling to an area known to have anthrax problems, you shouldn’t:
If you think you’ve been exposed to anthrax, call your healthcare provider to start antibiotics or other therapies immediately. Untreated anthrax can be deadly. Fast treatment can prevent severe infection and life-threatening symptoms, improving your odds of a full recovery.
You should call your healthcare provider if you suspect you’ve been exposed to anthrax and you experience:
If you have anthrax, you may want to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A diagnosis of anthrax is rare in the United States. People who work in certain professions or who travel to developing countries are more likely to be exposed to the bacteria that cause anthrax. If you work in a high-risk field, talk to your healthcare provider about getting the anthrax vaccine. Most people infected with anthrax recover after receiving prompt treatment with antibiotics or other therapies. Inhalation anthrax is deadlier and more difficult to treat. For these reasons, inhalation anthrax is considered a potential bioterrorism threat.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/17/2023.
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