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Can Anthrax Cause Injury and Death?

Updated December 29, 2023

Yes, anthrax can cause injury and death by invading the human bloodstream, multiplying and spreading to lymph nodes and many organs. The bacteria, which produces a virulent toxin, can enter the bloodstream through a cut in the skin; by inhaling the anthrax spores through the nose; by swallowing the spores into the gastrointestinal system; or by injecting anthrax contaminated heroin. The cutaneous (skin) route is much less deadly than inhaling, swallowing, or injecting the organism. 

How quickly anthrax causes injury death is dependent on the type of anthrax as well as how effective treatment, once it is sought out and implemented.

Cutaneous (Skin) Anthrax: If the anthrax exposure route is through the skin, symptoms include a formation of a small, red skin lesion(s) that become swollen, larger, and blackened over a week’s time. Spontaneous healing occurs in 80 to 90 percent of cases. Ten to 20 percent of untreated cutaneous anthrax cases develop fever, edema, bacteremia (massive bacterial infection of the blood), necrosis, shock, meningitis, and death.       

Inhalation (Lungs) Anthrax: Symptoms of inhalation anthrax are generally non-specific and can include shortness of breath, cough, fever, chills, extreme fatigue, head, and body aches, confusion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain.  Complications of inhalation include hypotension, severe breathing problems, toxemia, bacteremia, gastrointestinal disorders, meningitis, shock, and death can occur within 24 hours.  Fifty-five percent of persons exposed to anthrax by inhalation during the 2001 bioterrorism attack in the U.S. survived. Without treatment, there is only a 10 to 15 percent survival rate.   

Gastrointestinal Anthrax: After swallowing anthrax spores, symptoms of gastrointestinal anthrax can include fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, and sore throat, hoarseness, painful swallowing, and swelling of the neck or abdomen.  Complications include bleeding, perforation, intestinal obstruction, sepsis, respiratory disease, toxemia, meningitis, increased abdominal girth, ascites, bowel perforation, shock, and death.   

Injection Anthrax: Symptoms of injection anthrax are like cutaneous anthrax; however, the infection may occur deeper in the skin or into the muscle.  Complications include skin necrosis, septic shock, multi-organ failure, meningitis, and death.  Approximately 33 percent of injection anthrax cases are fatal.   

IMPORTANT NOTE: NVIC “Quick Facts” is not a substitute for becoming fully informed about anthrax and the anthrax vaccine. NVIC recommends consumers read comprehensive information NVIC provides on anthrax, the vaccine manufacturer product information inserts, and speak with one or more trusted health care professionals before making a vaccination decision for yourself or your child.

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