Anthrax Infection: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment
Synopsis: Signs and symptoms of anthrax depend upon how a person is infected and may range from vomiting to skin sores to shock. The most serious complication of anthrax is inflammation of the membranes and fluid covering a person's brain and spinal cord, which leads to massive bleeding or, 'hemorrhagic meningitis,' and possibly even death. If you think you have been exposed, perhaps through work in an environment where anthrax is likely to occur, it is important to visit a doctor immediately for evaluation and care.
Anthrax is an acute disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Most forms of the disease are lethal, and it affects mostly animals. It is not contagious but can be transmitted through contact or consumption of infected meat. Effective vaccines against anthrax are available, and some forms of the disease respond well to antibiotic treatment.
There is no evidence that anthrax is transmitted from person to person, but it is possible that anthrax skin lesions may be contagious through direct contact. Usually, anthrax bacteria enter a person's body through a wound in the skin. A person can also become infected by eating meat that is contaminated, or by inhaling the spores.
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of anthrax depend upon how a person is infected and may range from vomiting to skin sores to shock. Quick treatment with antibiotics can cure the majority of infections. Inhaled anthrax is harder to treat and may even be fatal.
There are four common routes of anthrax infection; each of them presents different signs and symptoms. In most instances, symptoms develop within seven days of the person's exposure to the bacteria. The one exception is inhalation anthrax, which might take weeks after the person is exposed before symptoms show up. What follows are different forms of anthrax.
A cutaneous anthrax infection enters a person's body through a sore or cut on the person's skin. It is by far the most common route the disease takes. It is also the mildest; with appropriate treatment, cutaneous anthrax is rarely fatal. Signs and symptoms of cutaneous anthrax include swelling in the sore and nearby lymph glands, as well as a raised, itchy bump resembling an insect bite that quickly develops into a painless sore with a black center.
Gastrointestinal anthrax infections start when a person eats under-cooked meat from an infected animal. Signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal anthrax include:
- Swollen neck
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Severe and bloody diarrhea
- Sore throat and difficulty with swallowing
Injection anthrax is the most recently identified route of anthrax infection. It is contracted through injecting illegal drugs and has been reported in Europe. The initial signs and symptoms of injection anthrax include the following:
- Significant swelling
- Multiple organ failure
- Redness at the area of injection
Inhalation (Pulmonary) Anthrax:
Inhalation anthrax develops when a person breathes in anthrax spores. It is the most deadly way to contract the disease and even with treatment it is often times fatal. The initial signs and symptoms of inhalation anthrax include:
- High fever
- Painful swallowing
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath
- Mild chest discomfort
- Trouble with breathing
- Flu-like symptoms such as mild fever, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue
A number of common illnesses begin with symptoms resembling the flu. The chances that a person's aching muscles and sore throat are due to anthrax are very small. If you think you have been exposed, perhaps through work in an environment where anthrax is likely to occur, it is important to visit a doctor immediately for evaluation and care. If you develop signs and symptoms of the disorder after exposure to animals or animal products in areas of the world where anthrax is common, pursue quick medical attention. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial.
Causes of Anthrax Infections
Anthrax spores are formed by anthrax bacteria, which occur naturally in soil in most areas of the world. The spores may remain dormant for a number of years until they find their way into a host. Common hosts for anthrax include wild or domestic livestock such as cattle, horses, sheep and goats. While rare in America, anthrax remains common throughout the developing world such as Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa.
The majority of human instances of anthrax happen as a result of exposure to infected animals, their meat, or their hides. In America, a few people have developed anthrax while making traditional African drums from the hides of infected animals. One of the few known instances of non-animal transmission happened in America in the year 2001 when 22 people developed anthrax after being exposed to spores sent through the U.S. Mail. Five of the people who became infected died.
Fifty-four heroin users in Europe contracted anthrax through injection of illegal drugs. Eighteen people died from injectable anthrax in the outbreak. Heroin sold in Europe most likely comes from areas where naturally occurring anthrax is more common.
In order to contract anthrax, a person must come into direct contact with anthrax spores. Contact with anthrax spores is more likely if you:
- Inject illegal drugs such as heroin
- Work with anthrax in a laboratory setting
- Work in veterinary medicine, particularly if you deal with livestock
- Handle animal skins, furs, or wool from areas with a high incidence of anthrax
- Are in the military and deployed to an area with a high risk of exposure to anthrax
- Dress or handle game animals; seasonal outbreaks of anthrax are common in America among livestock and game animals such as deer
The most serious complication of anthrax is inflammation of the membranes and fluid covering a person's brain and spinal cord, which leads to massive bleeding or, 'hemorrhagic meningitis,' and possibly even death.
Testing For and Diagnosing Anthrax Infections
A doctor will first want to rule out other, more common conditions that might be causing the person's signs and symptoms such as pneumonia or the flu. The person may have a rapid flu test to quickly diagnose an instance of the flu. If additional tests are negative, the person may have further testing performed to look specifically for anthrax such as:
- Spinal tap
- Blood tests
- Skin testing
- Stool testing
- Computerized tomography (CT) or X-ray
Treating Anthrax Infections
The standard treatment for anthrax is a sixty-day course of an antibiotic such as ciprofloxacin or doxycycline. Which single antibiotic or combination of them will be most effective for an infected person depends on how they became infected. It also depends on the person's overall health, age, as well as other factors. Treatment is most effective when it is started as soon as possible.
While some instances of anthrax respond to antibiotics, advanced inhalation anthrax might not respond. By the later stages of the disease, the bacteria have often produced more toxins than antibiotics have the ability to eliminate. Since the 2001 attacks in America, antitoxin therapies have been developed. Instead of going after the bacteria that causes the disease itself, these medications assist with elimination of toxins caused by the infection. The medications remain experimental. Some instances of injection anthrax were treated successfully with the surgical removal of infected tissue.
Preventing Anthrax Infections
Antibiotics are recommended to prevent infection in people who have been exposed to anthrax spores. Ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, levofloxacin and other antibiotics are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for post-exposure prevention of anthrax in both children and adults. What follows are other ways to prevent anthrax infections.
Anthrax Vaccine: An anthrax vaccine for people is available. The vaccine does not contain live bacteria and cannot lead to infection, yet it may cause side-effects ranging from soreness at the site of injection to more serious allergic reactions. The vaccine is not recommended for children or seniors. The vaccine is not intended for people in the general public. It is reserved for military personnel, people in high-risk professions, as well as scientists working with anthrax.
Avoiding Infected Animals: If you live or travel in a country where anthrax is common and herd animals are not vaccinated on a routine basis, avoid contact with livestock and animal skins as much as you can. Also - avoid eating meat that has not been appropriately prepared. Even in developed countries it is important to handle any dead animal with care and to take precautions while working with or processing imported fur, hides, or wool.
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Disabled World is an independent disability community founded in 2004 to provide disability news and information to people with disabilities, seniors, their family and/or carers. See our homepage for informative reviews, exclusive stories and how-tos. You can connect with us on social media such as X.com and our Facebook page.
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