If you have been exposed to blood or body fluids from an animal with anthrax, wash the area with soap and water and contact your doctor immediately.
- Anthrax is a very rare but serious disease caused by bacteria from infected animals.
- Most of the time it causes a skin infection, but it can also affect your digestive tract (your gut) or lungs.
- Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics — the sooner the better.
- If you work with infected animals, it’s very important to wear full body protective equipment and cover any broken skin with dressings to prevent catching anthrax.
What is anthrax?
Anthrax (also known as ‘wool-sorter’s disease’) is a serious infectious disease caused by a type of bacteria known as bacillus anthracis. It can survive for a long time as spores.
Anthrax is very rare in Australia, with only been 3 cases occurring in humans since 2001. However, it still occurs in animals — mainly in the ‘anthrax belt’, which runs through western New South Wales into Victoria and southern Queensland.
What are the symptoms of anthrax?
There are 3 types of anthrax, each with different symptoms.
Cutaneous (skin) anthrax
This infection appears on the skin, usually 1 to 7 days after exposure to the bacteria. It causes an itchy, painless sore that turns black. The skin around the sore can be swollen and red.
Most people recover from cutaneous anthrax. If it’s not treated, it can spread to your blood and make you very sick.
This is the only type of anthrax recorded in Australia.
Intestinal (gut) anthrax
This infection causes abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and fever. Symptoms begin between 1 to 6 days after exposure. It is often fatal.
Inhalational (lung) anthrax
This infection causes flu-like symptoms such as fever and cough, followed by severe difficulty breathing and collapse. Symptoms normally develop 1 to 5 days after exposure, but they can take as long as 60 days to appear.
Most people with this type of anthrax die if they are not treated in time.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
How is anthrax spread?
You cannot catch anthrax from another person. You can catch it from contact with infected animals or, very rarely, through anthrax spores.
In cutaneous anthrax, bacteria enter your body through broken skin or wounds. Intestinal anthrax develops from eating meat that comes from infected animals. Inhalational anthrax is caused by breathing bacterial spores into your lungs — this usually affects people who work with animal hides or products.
Anthrax spores are found in the soil in Australia and can stay there for many years. They may infect animals that graze in the area. It is very unlikely for humans to catch anthrax from soil.
There have also been rare cases overseas where people have sent anthrax spores through the mail.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have been exposed to blood or body fluids from an animal with anthrax, contact your doctor straight away. Wash the area with soap and water. You will probably be prescribed preventive antibiotics.
Look out for any new symptoms and see a doctor immediately if you develop:
- a fever
- a cough or trouble breathing
- aches and pains
- sores on your skin
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
How is anthrax diagnosed?
Your doctor might suspect you have cutaneous anthrax based on what the sores look like. A laboratory can confirm the diagnosis by examining a sample of your blood or mucus, or a swab from one of the sores.
All suspected and confirmed cases of anthrax in Australia must be reported to the public health authorities.
How is anthrax treated?
Anthrax is treated immediately with antibiotics. There are a few different antibiotics that are effective.
For lung anthrax, more specialised medicines may be used as well.
For cutaneous anthrax, you may need to see a surgeon to remove the black scab. Once the wound has healed, you might choose to see a plastic surgeon to improve how the scar looks, if this bothers you.
Can anthrax be prevented?
Cases of anthrax in livestock are reported in Australia from time to time. This can occur all year round, especially in summer or after the weather changes. Farmers who suspect their animals have anthrax must follow strict procedures to control its spread. The farm will be isolated, dead animals will be disposed of carefully and other animals will be vaccinated.
It is important to protect yourself if you work with infected animals or their carcasses.
Here are some precautions you should take:
- Always wear gloves, disposable overalls, a mask, eye protection and rubber boots.
- Wear insect repellent.
- Cover any broken skin with sealed waterproof dressings.
- Wash your hands and shower using soap before having contact with people or healthy animals.
- Put any clothes that may be contaminated in sealed double plastic bags. If anthrax is confirmed, these will need to be incinerated or sterilised at 121°C for 30 minutes.
If you have been exposed to a large number of anthrax spores, you can take antibiotics to prevent you getting sick.
Resources and support
If you own livestock and suspect you may have a case of anthrax, call the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888 immediately to report it.
Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time for more information if you think you have been exposed to anthrax.
Read the government emergency response plan to manage a deliberate release of anthrax in Australia.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: December 2022