Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (Banner Imagery) - Go to home page


What is anthrax?

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis.  Anthrax occurs naturally around the world in wild and domestic hoofed animals, especially cattle, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes.  It can also occur in humans when they are exposed to the bacterium, usually through handling animals, animal hides, or ingestion of contaminated meat. 

How common is anthrax and who can get it?

Anthrax can be found around the world.  It is most common in agricultural regions where it occurs in animals.  It is more common in developing countries or countries without veterinary public health programs.  Anthrax is reported more often in some regions of the world (South and Central America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East) than in others.  It has been extremely rare in the United States in recent decades, until the cases diagnosed in 2001.  When anthrax affects humans, it is usually an occupational exposure to infected animals or their products.  However, anthrax is considered to be one of a number of potential agents for use in biological terrorism.

How is anthrax spread?

Anthrax is usually spread in the form of a spore.  (A spore is a dormant form that certain bacteria take when they have no food supply.  Spores can grow and cause disease when better conditions are present, as in a human body).

There are three forms of anthrax that affect humans: cutaneous anthrax, intestinal anthrax, and inhalation anthrax.  The incubation period is typically 1 to 7 days but can be as long as 60 days.

  • Cutaneous anthrax is the most common naturally occurring form of the disease.  This form of the disease occurs when the anthrax spore comes in contact with exposed skin, especially areas with cuts or abrasions. 

  • The intestinal disease form of anthrax may follow the consumption of contaminated food and is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract.

  • Inhalation anthrax occurs when a person breathes in the anthrax spores.  However, the infectious dose for inhalation anthrax is quite high, and requires exposure to a large number of spores (8,000-10,000). 
What are the symptoms of anthrax?
  • Cutaneous (skin) anthrax only occurs when a spore has come in contact with a break in the skin.  At first the area will itch, then a large boil or sore will appear.  A black scab then covers the sore.  If not treated, the infection can spread to the lymph nodes and bloodstream. 

  • Intestinal anthrax only occurs after eating infected, undercooked meat.  Symptoms include fever, abdominal pain, loose watery bowel movements, and vomiting with blood.

  • Inhalation anthrax symptoms include fever, fatigue, malaise and a cough or chest pain.  High fever, rapid pulse, and severe difficulty breathing follow in 2-5 days.  Inhalation anthrax is often fatal.
Can I get anthrax from another person?

Anthrax is not contagious from one person to another. Therefore, there is no need to immunize or treat contacts of persons ill with anthrax, such as household contacts, friends, or coworkers, unless they were also exposed to the same source of infection.

How is anthrax diagnosed?

Anthrax is diagnosed when the Bacillus anthracis bacterium is found in the blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions by a laboratory culture.  Nose swabs are not a good way to diagnose anthrax.

Can anthrax be treated?
Yes.  In persons exposed to anthrax, infection can be prevented with antibiotic treatment.  Early antibiotic treatment of anthrax is essential – delay lessens chances for survival.
Do I need to disinfect my belongings or myself if I believe I was exposed to anthrax?

Most threats regarding anthrax have proven to be hoaxes.  However, in the event of a possible exposure to a powder or other unknown substance with a threat that may indicate anthrax, call 911 and leave the material alone. 

To prevent infection if you have a skin exposure to the powder or other substance, wash your hands vigorously with soap and water, and shower with soap and water if necessary.  Similarly, washing possibly contaminated clothes in the regular laundry will safely remove any possible anthrax.  To be inhaled, anthrax spores must first be aerosolized (dispersed in the air) which does not usually occur.  In the unlikely event that you do inhale spores, medical evaluation and treatment is needed, usually after spores are identified.


See Also...
  CDC's Site
Anthrax Basics

Contact Information:

Division of Epidemiology

275 East Main Street
Frankfort, KY 40621

(502) 564-3418 or
(502) 564-3261


Last Updated 2/1/2005