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Definition

Anthrax is caused by a spore-forming bacterium – bacillus anthracis. It is a rare but serious illness that may occur in mainly livestock and wild game. Humans can become infected if they come in contact with a sick animal. While there is no proof that anthrax can spread from person to person, skin lesions caused as a result of anthrax may be highly contagious.

Anthrax bacteria usually enter the body through a wound on the skin, but consumption of contaminated meat can also be a cause of infection.

Symptoms

Anthrax can enter the body through 4 main passages and each of these has different symptoms.

Cutaneous Anthrax

This kind of anthrax enters the body through a cut or a sore on the skin. Its symptoms include:

  • A raised itchy bump resembling an insect bite which later turns into a painless sore with a black centre
  • Swelling of lymph glands

Gastrointestinal Anthrax

This infection can be caused by eating undercooked or contaminated meat from an infected animal. Its symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Severe, bloody diarrhoea
  • Swollen neck
  • Sore throat

Inhalation (Pulmonary) Anthrax

This infection may occur when you inhale anthrax spores. Its symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea
  • Mild chest discomfort
  • Painful swallowing
  • Coughing up blood
  • High fever
  • Shock
  • Meningitis

Injection Anthrax

This infection can be spread through injecting illegal drugs. Symptoms for this may include:

  • Significant swelling
  • Redness in the injected area
  • Meningitis
  • Shock
  • Multiple organ failure

Risk Factors

You may be at high risk of contracting anthrax if you:

  • Work with anthrax in a laboratory setting
  • Are in the military and deployed in areas with a high risk of anthrax
  • Handle animal skins in areas that are a high risk of anthrax
  • Work as a veterinarian
  • Inject drugs such as heroin
  • Handle or dress game animals

Diagnosis

After having ruled out any other possible conditions for the aforementioned symptoms, your doctor will recommend the following tests to confirm anthrax:

  • Blood test
  • Skin testing
  • Chest X-Ray or Computerized Tomography (CT)
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture)
  • Stool testing

Treatment

Prevention of anthrax, if the source of the infection is known, will include a course of antibiotics to be taken orally such as Ciprofloxacin or Doxycycline.

When anthrax spores get inside the body, they can be "activated." When they become active, anthrax bacteria can multiply, spread out in the body, and produce toxins—or poisons. Anthrax toxins in the body cause severe illness.After anthrax toxins have been released in the body, one possible treatment is antitoxin.

Patients with serious cases of anthrax will need to be hospitalized. They may require aggressive treatment, such as continuous fluid drainage and help breathing through mechanical ventilation.

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