Anthrax is a serious disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that forms spores. A bacterium is a very small organism made up of one cell. A spore is a cell that is dormant (asleep) but may come to life under the right conditions. There are three types of anthrax:

  • Skin (cutaneous)
  • Lungs (inhalation)
  • Digestive (intestinal)

Anthrax is reportable to the Iowa Department of Public Health by Iowa Administrative Code 641 IAC 1.


Symptoms of an anthrax infection vary depending on the type of infection:

Skin - The first symptom of cutaneous anthrax is a small sore that develops into a blister. The blister then develops into a skin ulcer with a black area in the center.
Digestive - The first symptoms of intestinal anthrax include nausea, loss of appetite, bloody diarrhea and fever. These will be followed by bad stomach pain.
Lungs - Inhalation anthrax are like cold or flu symptoms and can include a sore throat, mild fever and muscle aches. Later symptoms include cough, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, tiredness and muscle aches.


Anthrax spores are formed by bacteria that occur naturally in soil. The spores can remain dormant for years until they find their way into a host such as sheep, cattle, horses and goats. Anthrax does not spread person-to-person. Anthrax can be spread naturally by exposure to contaminated soil or animals, or intentionally when used as a weapon.

Anthrax from animals. Humans can become infected with anthrax by handling products from infected animals or by breathing in anthrax spores from infected animal products. People also can become infected with intestinal anthrax by eating undercooked meat from infected animals.
Anthrax as a weapon. Anthrax also can be used as a weapon. This happened in the United States in 2001. Anthrax was deliberately spread through the postal system by sending letters with powder containing anthrax spores. This caused 22 cases of anthrax infection and resulted in 5 deaths.

Risk Factors

To become infected with anthrax you must come into direct contact with anthrax spores. Certain careers or activities can put you at a greater risk for being infected:

  • Handle animal skins. Those who handle animal skins, furs or wool
  • Military. Those in the military and deployed to areas with a high risk of exposure
  • Laboratory. Those who work with anthrax in a laboratory setting
  • Veterinarians. Veterinarians may be at a higher risk of infection especially if work is done with livestock.
  • Hunters. Those who handle or dress game animals have an increased risk of infection.


There is a vaccine to prevent anthrax infection, but it is not intended for public use. Instead, the vaccine is reserved for those in the military, working with anthrax in the laboratory, or others in high risk professions. In the event of a biological attack using anthrax, people exposed may get the vaccine.


Antibiotics are used to treat all three types of anthrax infection. Early identification and treatment are important.


No cases of anthrax have been reported in Iowa.

For more detailed information and statistics on all notifiable diseases, please see ourcurrent annual report.

Additional Resources