Last updated: January 13, 2022

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Anthrax is a rare infectious disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, a gram-positive spore-forming bacterium that is found in soil. Human infection usually results from contact with infected livestock or infected animal products (e.g., wool or meat). B. anthracis spores have also been weaponized for biological warfare/terrorism. Depending on the route of entry, three distinct clinical syndromes can occur: inhalation anthrax, cutaneous anthrax, and gastrointestinal anthrax. Cutaneous anthrax (the most common form) presents initially as a papular lesion, which later becomes vesicular, and eventually forms a necrotic eschar. Inhalation anthrax results in hemorrhagic mediastinitis and presents with fever, acute, nonproductive cough, retrosternal chest pain, and/or pleural effusion. Gastrointestinal anthrax, which is very rare, causes gastrointestinal ulceration, which results in hematemesis and/or bloody diarrhea. The diagnosis of anthrax is confirmed by the microscopic evidence of B. anthracis. Mortality is high but swift treatment with antibiotics (e.g., fluoroquinolones, linezolid, meropenem) can increase survival. Prognosis of cutaneous anthrax is usually better than that of inhalation and gastrointestinal anthrax.

Epidemiologytoggle arrow icon

  • Global distribution: Anthrax is endemic in agricultural regions of the USA, Canada, Central and South America, southern and eastern Europe, central and southwest Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Incidence: 0–2 cases per year
  • Sex: >

Resources: [1]

Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

Etiologytoggle arrow icon

  • Pathogen: Bacillus anthracis
    • Gram-positive, spore-forming, nonmotile rod
    • Edge of colony shows irregular comma-shaped outgrowths on blood agar (also referred to as Medusa head).
    • Spores of B. anthracis can remain viable for decades.
    • Anthrax is a zoonotic infection that primarily infects cows, goats, and sheep.
  • Transmission
    • Human infection occurs following exposure to B. anthracis or its spores (e.g., inhalation), usually as a result of contact with infected animals or infected animal products (e.g., wool, hide, meat).
    • Bioterrorism or biological warfare: exposure to weaponized B. anthracis or its spores. An attack using aerosolized anthrax could infect a large number of individuals and cause many casualties, especially if an antibiotic-resistant strain was used.
    • Person-to-person transmission is rare, but cases of person-to-person transmission of cutaneous anthrax have been reported.

Anthrax infection is an occupational hazard for people who handle livestock and process potentially infected animal materials such as wool or meat.

Pathophysiologytoggle arrow icon

Virulence factors

  • Antiphagocytic capsule
  • Anthrax toxin: responsible for the local and systemic manifestations of anthrax; made up of A and B subunits


  1. Local germination of B. anthracis spores and multiplication of bacteria
  2. Spreading to local/regional lymph nodes
  3. Bacteremia systemic spread

Clinical featurestoggle arrow icon

Depending on the route/mechanism of infection, one or more of three anthrax subtypes may occur.

Overview of anthrax subtypes
Feature Cutaneous anthrax Inhalation anthrax (Woolsorters' disease) Gastrointestinal anthrax
Relative frequency
  • ∼ 95%
  • ∼ 5%
  • < 1%

Route of entry

  • Inhalation
  • Ingestion
Incubation period
  • Typically 5–7 days
  • Typically 1–3 days
  • 2–5 days
Clinical features
  1. Prodromal phase (1–6 days): nonspecific, flu-likesymptoms (e.g., fever, malaise)
  2. Fulminant phase

Systemic spread is common in inhalational and gastrointestinal anthrax. It is less common in cutaneous anthrax (5–10% of cases).

Diagnosticstoggle arrow icon

Diagnostics of anthrax
Cutaneous anthrax Inhalation anthrax Gastrointestinal anthrax

Samples to collect

Pathogen detection

Diagnosis of anthrax infection can be made if either the confirmatory test or at least two of the supportive microbiologic tests indicate an infection.

Additional findings

Perform a lumbar puncture in all patients with clinical features of systemic involvement to rule out meningitis.

Resources: [1][2]

Treatmenttoggle arrow icon

Treatment of anthrax
Type of treatment Cutaneous anthrax Inhalation anthrax Gastrointestinal anthrax
Antibacterial Without systemic spread - -
With systemic spread
Supportive General
  • None

Prognosistoggle arrow icon

Gastrointestinal anthrax and inhalational anthrax are rare but have a particularly poor prognosis, even with antibiotic treatment!

Preventiontoggle arrow icon

Anthrax is a notifiable disease. It is also categorized as a category A bioweapon hazard by the CDC.

Resources: [1][3][4]

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. Jorgensen JH, Pfaller MA. Manual of Clinical Microbiology. ASM Press ; 2015
  2. Hoffmaster AR, Meyer RF, Bowen MD, et al. Evaluation and validation of a real-time polymerase chain reaction assay for rapid identification of Bacillus anthracis.. Emerg Infect Dis. 2002; 8 (10): p.1178-82.doi: 10.3201/eid0810.020393 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  3. Jameson JL, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Longo DL, Loscalzo J. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, Twentieth Edition (Vol.1 & Vol.2). McGraw-Hill Education / Medical ; 2018
  4. Brooks G, Carroll KC, Butel J, Morse S, Mietzner TA. Jawetz Melnick & Adelbergs Medical Microbiology. McGraw Hill Professional ; 2012

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 Evidence-based content, created and peer-reviewed by physicians. Read the disclaimer