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7th July, 20212 min read

What is cutaneous anthrax?

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Last reviewed: 08/07/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

What is cutaneous anthrax?

Cutaneous anthrax is a skin infection that’s caused by spores from the bacteria Bacillus anthracis. Spores are a form of bacteria that have a protective shell, which makes them hard to kill.

Cutaneous anthrax can be caught by touching infected animals or animal products like wool, hides or hair.

There are 4 different types of anthrax. Each is based on how you got the infection. They are:

  • cutaneous - when you’re infected through your skin
  • intestinal - when you eat meat that’s been infected with the anthrax spore
  • inhalation - when you breathe in the anthrax spore
  • injection - when you inject a recreational drug, usually heroin, that’s been infected with the anthrax spore

Of these, cutaneous anthrax is the most common.

What are the symptoms of cutaneous anthrax?

Cutaneous anthrax usually starts as a small, itchy and painless spot on the part of your body that touched the infected animal or animal product. The spot tends to grow quickly before turning into a blister and then an open sore. It may become black in the centre as the tissue dies.

You may also notice swelling around the spot and painful lumps nearby.

It can be very dangerous if it spreads through your blood and later symptoms might include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • feeling generally unwell

How do you treat cutaneous anthrax?

Without treatment, cutaneous anthrax can be life-threatening but it usually responds well to antibiotics. How long you need to take them depends on how bad the infection is. You may also need to have the antibiotics given to you through a vein at first.

In some cases you may need a small operation to help the sore heal.

If you’re at high risk of catching anthrax, for example if you’re a farm worker or a zoo keeper, you may be able to get a vaccine to protect you from anthrax. Speak to a doctor for advice on if you need a vaccine and how to get it.

If you may have been exposed to anthrax, but don’t have any symptoms, you may be offered antibiotics to help prevent the infection from developing.

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