Anthrax: Skin Infection, with Symptoms

Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by anthrax bacteria. The bacteria are spread in the form of spores. A spore is a protective covering on the bacteria, like the shell of a seed. The spore keeps the bacteria alive for long periods of time, waiting for the right condition to grow.

Anthrax can cause an infection in the skin, stomach and intestines (gastrointestinal tract), or lungs. People can become infected with anthrax by getting the spores in their bodies. This usually happens by handling infected animals or animal products. Skin (cutaneous) anthrax occurs after the bacterial spores come in contact with an opening in the skin, such as a cut or scrape.

  • Not everyone exposed will get sick.

  • If the infection occurs after exposure, symptoms usually start within 1 to 7 days.

  • The disease starts as a small red bump (like an insect bite) that turns into a blister.

  • The blister breaks in 1 to 2 days. Then a painless black sore forms. This sore dries up in 1 to 2 weeks.

Symptoms

Cutaneous anthrax symptoms starts as bumps or blisters, but then get worse. Symptoms can include:

  • A group of small blisters or bumps that may itch

  • A painless skin sore (ulcer) with a black center that appears after the small blisters or bumps

  • Often, a sore on the face, neck, arms, or hands

  • Swelling around the sore

Although it's very rare, it's possible for the skin form of anthrax to be passed on to another person. As an extra precaution, follow the instructions below.

Home care

  • Don't panic. Skin anthrax can be cured if treatment starts early. Take the medicine exactly as directed and don't miss any doses.

  • You may return to work or school as directed by your healthcare provider. But as with any infected wound, you should keep the area covered.

  • Wash the wound daily with soap and water, or as directed.

  • Wash your hands before eating and drinking, and after touching the area.

Advice for your caretaker

As with any infectious disease, caregivers should avoid direct contact with the wound or any drainage from it. The following is a guide for those providing home care to you.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water before you eat or drink, and after contact with the infected person.

  • Wear vinyl or latex gloves when changing a bandage. Wash your hands with soap and water after removing the gloves. If gloves are not available, wash your hands with soap and water after bandage changes.

  • Protect your face and eyes from splashes of wound drainage.

  • Wash soiled clothes and bed linens using hot water and laundry detergent.

  • Disinfect counters and other surfaces with a bacteria-killing disinfectant if bandages or drainage come in contact with them.

  • If you develop any signs of skin anthrax, get medical attention right away.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. If a lab test on a sample of cells (culture) was done, you will be notified if the treatment needs to be changed. You can call as directed for the results. If X-rays, a CT scan, or an ultrasound were done, they will be reviewed a specialist. You will be told the results, especially if they affect treatment.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble breathing or swallowing, wheezing

  • Trouble speaking

  • Confusion

  • Extreme drowsiness or trouble awakening

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Low blood pressure

  • Vomiting blood, or large amounts of blood in stool

  • Seizure

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur within 3 weeks after exposure:

  • Fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Weakness or dizziness

For the latest information, see the CDC website: www.cdc.gov/anthrax, or contact your state public health department.

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