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What is anthrax?

Anthrax is a serious disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that forms spores. A bacterium is a very small organism made up of one cell. Many bacteria can cause disease. A spore is a cell that is dormant (asleep), but may come to life under the right conditions.  There are three types of anthrax:

  • Skin (cutaneous)
  • Lungs (inhalation)
  • Digestive (gastrointestinal)

How does someone get anthrax?

Anthrax is not spread from person to person.

  • Anthrax from animals - Humans can become infected with anthrax by handling products from infected animals (like wool, for example). People also can become infected with gastrointestinal anthrax by eating undercooked meat from infected animals.
  • Anthrax as a weapon - Anthrax also can be used as a weapon. This happened in the United States in 2001. Anthrax was deliberately spread through the postal system by sending letters with powder containing anthrax. This caused 22 cases of anthrax infection.

What are the signs and symptoms of anthrax infection?

The symptoms of anthrax are different depending on the type of disease: 

  • Cutaneous - The first symptom is a small sore that develops into a blister. The blister then develops into a skin ulcer with a black area in the center. The sore, blister and ulcer do not hurt.  Fatality rate:  1% if treated, 20% if untreated.
  • Gastrointestinal - The first symptoms are nausea, loss of appetite, bloody diarrhea, and fever, followed by bad stomach pain. Fatality rate:  20-60%
  • Inhalation - The first symptoms of inhalation anthrax are like cold or flu symptoms and can include a sore throat, mild fever and muscle aches. Later symptoms include cough, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, tiredness and muscle aches. (Caution: Do not assume that just because a person has cold or flu symptoms that they have inhalation anthrax.)  Fatality rate:  approximately 75% even when treated.

How soon do infected people get sick?

Symptoms of an anthrax infection usually occur within seven days for all three types of anthrax. However, incubation periods of up to 60 days are possible.  For cutaneous anthrax, bumps may develop as soon as 1 day.

How Is Anthrax Treated?

Antibiotics are used to treat all three types of anthrax. Early identification and treatment are important.  

  • Prevention after exposure: Treatment is different for a person who is exposed to anthrax, but is not yet sick. Health-care providers will use antibiotics (such as ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin, doxycycline, or penicillin) combined with the anthrax vaccine to prevent anthrax infection.  
  • Treatment after infection: Treatment is usually a 60-day course of antibiotics. Success depends on the type of anthrax and how soon treatment begins.

What should someone do if they think they have anthrax?

If you are showing symptoms of anthrax infection, call your health-care provider right away.

What should someone do if they think they have been exposed to anthrax?

Report suspected cases of anthrax or suspected intentional release of anthrax to your local health department. The local health department is responsible for notifying the state health department and local law enforcement. The state health department will notify the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Michigan State Police Emergency Management, and the Michigan Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

What is Michigan doing to combat this health threat?

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services works closely with physicians and laboratories to make them aware of the signs and symptoms of anthrax and to be able to identify anthrax.  Increased surveillance by local health departments is incredibly important in our efforts to detect bioterrorism, investigate potential cases and ensure that patients will be cared for properly.  Hospitals, health care providers, and health departments throughout the state are prepared to follow the protocols and recommendations for care set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure patient safety.

For more information on anthrax:

Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Anthrax webpage at