Anthrax or Flu? - What You Need to Know

Last Editorial Review: 7/7/2004

The cold and flu season has arrived, and as the anthrax threat still looms over America, the question arises..."Is it the flu, or anthrax?" The Centers For Disease Control has published information on this subject. Read on to find the answers to your questions.

Does CDC recommend getting an influenza immunization (flu shot) to reduce the number of flu-like illnesses that may raise concerns about possible anthrax-related illness?

No. CDC does not recommend that you get a flu shot so you can tell if you have the flu or an anthrax-related illness. Many viruses and bacteria besides influenza (including anthrax) can begin with flu-like symptoms, which include fever, body aches, tiredness, and headaches. In fact, most illnesses with flu-like symptoms are not caused by influenza or anthrax.

You should get a flu shot to prevent the flu. The flu vaccine is the best protection you can get to prevent the flu and its severe complications. People have the greatest risk of severe complications from flu are those 65 years old or older and those with certain medical conditions. The flu shot can prevent 70-90 percent of the flu illnesses, but it will not prevent illnesses with flu-like symptoms caused by anything other than the influenza virus.

How do I know that my flu symptoms are not anthrax?

Many illnesses begin with symptoms commonly referred to as "flu-like" symptoms. These include fever, lack of energy, and muscle aches, dry cough, sore throat, and sometimes a runny nose.

If you have the flu you can have any or all of these symptoms: 

The fever and body aches can last for 3-5 days, but the cough and fatigue can last for 2 or more weeks.

Anthrax symptoms depend on how the person got the disease. These are the symptoms for the three ways to get anthrax:

  • Inhalation (breathing) - The initial symptoms, which may mimic flu-like symptoms, include fever, chills, sweats, tiredness, muscle pain, chest discomfort, dry cough, and vomiting. However, several hours to several days later they progress to severe breathing problems and shock.

  • Cutaneous (skin) - Skin infection begins as a raised itchy bump that resembles an insect bite, but within one to two days develops into a fluid-filled sore, and then into a painless ulcer with a black (dead) center. Lymph glands in the adjacent area may swell.

  • Intestinal (eating) - This is rarely seen. Initial signs of nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and fever are followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea.

For additional information, please read the following articles:

Source: Centers for Disease Control (

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