Anthrax

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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What specialists treat anthrax?

Although primary-care doctors and pediatricians can treat anthrax, consultation with an infectious-disease specialist is suggested. Other doctors who may help diagnose and/or treat the various types of anthrax include emergency-medicine specialists, pulmonologists, critical-care specialists, and physicians who are experts in treating biologic agents used in warfare.

How is the diagnosis made of anthrax?

The history, including the occupation of the person, is important. The bacteria may be found in cultures or smears in cutaneous (skin) anthrax and in throat swabs and sputum in pulmonary anthrax. Chest X-rays may also show characteristic changes in and between the lungs. Once the anthrax is disseminated, bacteria can be seen in the blood using a microscope. Of course, if anthrax is deliberately spread, the manifestations of the disease may be unusual. Indeed, in the bioterrorism attack in the U.S. in 2001, anthrax spores were spread through the postal system as a white powder mailed with letters.

What is the treatment for anthrax?

In most cases, early treatment can cure anthrax. The cutaneous (skin) form of anthrax can be treated with common antibiotics such as penicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin (Ilotycin, Ery-Ped, Ery-Tab), and ciprofloxacin (Cipro). The pulmonary form of anthrax is a medical emergency. Early and continuous intravenous therapy with antibiotics may be lifesaving. In a bioterrorism attack, individuals exposed to anthrax will be given antibiotics before they become sick. A vaccine exists but is not yet available to the general public. Most experts think that the vaccine will also be given to exposed individuals who are victims of a bioterrorist attack. Of note, anthrax is a reportable disease. That means that local or state health agencies must be notified if a case of anthrax is diagnosed. These agencies can better characterize the anthrax so that the affected individual can receive the most effective treatment for that particular organism.

Individuals exposed to aerosolized spores (bioterrorism scares or attacks, for example) can participate in postexposure prevention of anthrax. Four antibiotics are recommended by the FDA: doxycycline (Doryx, Oracea, Monodox), ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin (Levaquin, Quixin, Iquix), and parenteral procaine penicillin G. In addition to these antibiotics, a three-dose series of anthrax vaccine should be started as soon as possible after exposure.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/19/2016

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