Skip to main navigation Skip to main content Skip to footer For Medicare For Providers For Brokers For Employers Español For Individuals & Families: For Individuals & Families Medical Dental Other Supplemental Explore coverage through work How to Buy Health Insurance Types of Dental Insurance Open Enrollment vs. Special Enrollment See all topics Shop for Medicare plans Member Guide Find a Doctor Log in to myCigna
Home Knowledge Center Wellness Library Anthrax

Anthrax

Condition Basics

What is anthrax?

Anthrax is a serious, sometimes deadly disease caused by infection with anthrax bacteria. These bacteria produce spores that can spread the infection.

Anthrax in humans is rare unless the spores are spread on purpose. It became a concern in the United States in 2001, when 22 cases occurred as a result of bioterrorism. Most of those cases affected postal workers and media employees who were exposed to spores when handling mail.

Most cases of anthrax occur in livestock, such as cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Anthrax spores in the soil can infect animals who eat plants growing in the soil. People can be exposed to spores in infected animal products or meat. This is not much of a concern in North America, because livestock are vaccinated against anthrax. But people can get anthrax from handling animal skins or products made out of animal skins from parts of the world where anthrax is more common.

What causes it?

Anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis bacteria. There are three types of infection:

Cutaneous (skin) anthrax.

This can occur when spores enter your body through a break in the skin. Half of the cases in the 2001 U.S. terrorist attacks were this type.

Inhalational (lung) anthrax.

This can occur when you breathe in spores. It is the most serious type of infection. Half of the cases in the 2001 attacks were this type.

Gastrointestinal (digestive) anthrax.

This can occur when you eat food contaminated with anthrax spores. This has occurred in developing regions of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, but not in North America.

The illness does not seem to spread from person to person. People who come in contact with someone who has anthrax don't need to be immunized or treated unless they were exposed to the same source of infection.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms and the incubation period—the time from exposure to anthrax until symptoms start—depend on the type of anthrax infection you have.

With cutaneous anthrax, symptoms usually appear 5 to 7 days after exposure to spores, though it may take longer.

  • The first symptom may be a small, raised bump that might itch.
  • The bump becomes a painless, fluid-filled blister and later forms a black center of dying tissue.
  • Swollen lymph nodes, headache, and fever also may occur.

With inhalational anthrax, symptoms usually appear 1 to 7 days after exposure. (But it can take as long as 60 days).

  • At first you may feel like you have the flu, with a sore throat, a mild fever, and muscle aches. But you may also have shortness of breath, which is not common with the flu.
  • Severe trouble breathing, high fever, and shock may occur 1 to 5 days later.
  • Death usually follows within a day or two.

With gastrointestinal anthrax, symptoms usually occur within a week after exposure.

  • At first you may have mouth ulcers, a sore throat, trouble swallowing, loss of appetite, vomiting, or a fever.
  • As the illness gets worse, you may have trouble breathing (because of swelling in the throat), bloody diarrhea or vomit, or belly pain caused by fluid buildup.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and about any work or other activities that may have put you at risk for exposure. If the doctor suspects you may have been exposed to anthrax, testing will be done to confirm exposure or infection. Public health officials also will be notified about a possible anthrax infection.

Anthrax is confirmed when the bacteria are identified from a culture of your blood, spinal fluid, skin sores, or mucus from your nose, airways, or lungs. If results of a culture aren't clear, you may need other blood tests or a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. A skin ulcer may be biopsied.

If your doctor thinks that you have inhalational anthrax, you may have a chest X-ray or a CT scan.

How is anthrax treated?

Antibiotics and antitoxins are used to treat all types of anthrax.

Anyone who is infected needs to be treated as soon as possible. Starting treatment before symptoms begin may make the illness less severe and prevent death. Treatment may also include supportive care in the hospital.

Anyone who has been exposed to anthrax spores but is not yet sick should be treated with antibiotics and a few doses of the vaccine to prevent infection. Not everyone who has been exposed to anthrax will get sick. But because there's no way to know who will get sick and who won't, anyone who is directly exposed will get treatment. If you think that you have been exposed, call your local law enforcement agency and your doctor right away. Don't take antibiotics without talking to your doctor first.

How can you prevent it?

In the U.S., the anthrax vaccine is used to protect only the small number of people who are at higher risk for exposure. These include:

  • Some military personnel.
  • Some lab workers.
  • Some people who come in contact with animals from other countries.

The vaccine is not available to the general public at this time. The risk of exposure to anthrax is extremely low.

The bioterrorism attacks in 2001 made many people nervous about opening their mail. If you receive a piece of mail that contains a powdery substance or seems suspicious, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you put down the piece of mail and not touch it again. Then, leave the room, wash your hands with soap and water, and call 911 to find out what to do next.

If you have concerns about anthrax, you can find the most current information through the CDC (www.cdc.gov/anthrax).

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.

© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Related Links

Terrorism and Other Public Health Threats

<cipublic-spinner variant="large"><span>Loading…</span></cipublic-spinner>

Page Footer

I want to...

Get an ID card File a claim View my claims and EOBs Check coverage under my plan See prescription drug list Find an in-network doctor, dentist, or facility Find a form Find 1095-B tax form information View the Cigna Glossary Contact Cigna

Audiences

Individuals and Families Medicare Employers Brokers Providers

Secure Member Sites

myCigna member portal Health Care Provider portal Cigna for Employers Client Resource Portal Cigna for Brokers

Cigna Company Information

About Cigna Company Profile Careers Newsroom Investors Suppliers Third Party Administrators International Evernorth

 Cigna. All rights reserved.

Privacy Legal Product Disclosures Cigna Company Names Customer Rights Accessibility Non-Discrimination Notice [PDF] Language Assistance [PDF] Report Fraud Sitemap

Disclaimer

Individual and family medical and dental insurance plans are insured by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (CHLIC), Cigna HealthCare of Arizona, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of Illinois, Inc., and Cigna HealthCare of North Carolina, Inc. Group health insurance and health benefit plans are insured or administered by CHLIC, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (CGLIC), or their affiliates (see a listing of the legal entities  that insure or administer group HMO, dental HMO, and other products or services in your state). Accidental Injury, Critical Illness, and Hospital Care plans or insurance policies are distributed exclusively by or through operating subsidiaries of Cigna Corporation, are administered by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company, and are insured by either (i) Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (Bloomfield, CT); (ii) Life Insurance Company of North America (“LINA”) (Philadelphia, PA); or (iii) New York Life Group Insurance Company of NY (“NYLGICNY”) (New York, NY), formerly known as Cigna Life Insurance Company of New York. The Cigna name, logo, and other Cigna marks are owned by Cigna Intellectual Property, Inc. LINA and NYLGICNY are not affiliates of Cigna.

All insurance policies and group benefit plans contain exclusions and limitations. For availability, costs and complete details of coverage, contact a licensed agent or Cigna sales representative. This website is not intended for residents of New Mexico.

Selecting these links will take you away from Cigna.com to another website, which may be a non-Cigna website. Cigna may not control the content or links of non-Cigna websites. Details