What Are the Symptoms of Anthrax?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The symptoms of anthrax depend on the type of infection. There are three forms of anthrax infections and in order of severity from greatest to least these are, inhaled or pulmonary, gastrointestinal (GI), and cutaneous or skin. Since different areas of the body are affected with each type, symptoms considerably vary, but it can generally be said that cutaneous symptoms of anthrax most affect the skin, gastrointestinal anthrax disturbs the GI tract, and pulmonary anthrax has pronounced effects on the lungs.

A sore throat can be an early sign of anthrax.
A sore throat can be an early sign of anthrax.

The more specific symptoms of anthrax need to be discussed by type. The most severe anthrax type, which has a high mortality rate, even with treatment, is pulmonary or inhaled anthrax. When people inhale these bacteria, they first develop symptoms that may feel like a flu: fever, muscle aches, sore chest, headache, fatigue, and a sore throat. This early expression of the infection is usually finished within a few days and then infection symptoms quickly become more dramatic and begin to include difficulty breathing and high fever. Inhaled anthrax that isn’t being treated or responding to treatment worsens more and potential complications include developing pleural effusions or fluid around the lungs and meningitis; in worst cases, going into systemic shock is typically followed by death.

Nausea and severe vomiting may be symptoms of anthrax.
Nausea and severe vomiting may be symptoms of anthrax.

GI anthrax is a severe illness, too, but it tends to respond better to treatment, though in some cases it has been fatal. Symptoms of anthrax of this type tend to begin with nausea, severe vomiting and diarrhea that are likely to contain noticeable amounts of blood, especially as the illness progresses. Patients with this condition tend to not want to eat, and they may have pronounced fever. Another symptom is swelling in the neck, which can be mild to very severe. If the disease progresses more, there may be hemorrhaging in the GI tract and people may develop shock and die.

In contrast to GI and inhaled anthrax, cutaneous anthrax is much milder and is most responsive to a much shorter course of antibiotic treatment. The presentation of symptoms of anthrax of this kind is an appearance of a red bump that is comparable to a bite from an insect in size and itchiness. The bump opens, developing a black scab in its center, and generally isn’t painful or itchy at this point. The sore usually starts to get bigger or swollen and many patients have swollen lymph nodes with increase in sore size.

In most cases, the biggest risk with cutaneous anthrax is that unresponsive or untreated cases will result in cellulitis or infection of the blood. Since this illness and especially the sore are so recognizable, most people can be treated quickly with a one to two week course of antibiotics. With inhaled and GI anthrax, a much longer course of antibiotics is required. Generally, two months worth of antibiotic treatment is needed to kill these two more aggressive forms of the disease, and in the inhaled form, treatment continues to have a high failure rate.

Gastrointestinal anthrax affects the GI system.
Gastrointestinal anthrax affects the GI system.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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