What Is Anthrax?
You may have heard about anthrax and wondered what it is. Some people are worried that the germ that causes anthrax could be spread and used as a weapon. Although this is a frightening thought, the government and police are working on ways to protect us.
In the meantime, it’s important not to panic over anthrax — the chance that you or someone in your family could ever get it is very small. One of the ways you can feel better is to learn about the disease. When you know what it is and how you can get it, it doesn’t seem quite as scary.
So here are answers to some questions you might have about anthrax:
What is anthrax?
Anthrax is an infection caused by bacteria (a type of germ) called Bacillus anthracis (say: buh-SIL-us an-THRAY-sus). These bacteria make spores, a form of the germ covered by a protective shell. The spores can live for years in the soil, and they cause anthrax when they enter the body. Although the disease is most common in farm animals — like sheep, cows, and goats — there’s a small chance that people can get it as well, usually from some type of contact with an animal or part of an animal that had anthrax.
How do people get anthrax?
People can get anthrax if they are exposed to the spores. (Exposed means that a germ that can cause disease is found in the same place that you are — like in the same room — where it could come into direct contact with your body.) But here’s the important part: Just being exposed to these spores doesn’t mean that people will get sick.
To get sick, people would have to have contact with the spores in one of three very specific ways: they would have to breathe thousands of these spores all the way into their lungs; they would have to eat meat that had spores in it (meat that spreads anthrax comes from animals that were infected with the bacteria and usually is not cooked fully); or they would have to handle something with spores on it and get spores in cuts on their skin.
This may sound scary, but even when people come into contact with the spores it’s unlikely that they will get sick. If the bacteria do not get into the skin, digestive tract, or lungs, the disease will not develop.
Is anthrax contagious?
Anthrax is not contagious, which means it does not spread from person to person the way the flu can spread between family members or classmates.
How is anthrax treated?
Anthrax can often be successfully treated with antibiotics (medicine that kills bacteria).
Should I worry about anthrax?
Anthrax is very rare. In the fall of 2001, a few people became infected with anthrax after someone used letters in the mail to spread the spores that cause the disease. Although this was scary, only a few people became sick and the police have been working hard to stop anything like that from happening again. A person’s chance of getting anthrax from spores that someone spreads or from any type of contact with an infected animal is very, very low.
If you’re still worried about anthrax, remember that you, your family, and your friends will probably never be exposed to anthrax spores. Talking to your teacher or parent may make you feel better and give you answers to any other questions about anthrax.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2013