Exposure: Anthrax spores have been found in the nose or on the skin. It does not mean that the spores have entered the lungs or bloodstream or produced an illness.
Infection: The spores, which are similar to seeds, have sprouted bacteria that have begun to multiply and spread. This occurs after spores are inhaled into the lungs, have penetrated a cut or are swallowed in contaminated meat.
Illness: The bacteria have released toxins, resulting in symptoms that can include skin sores, fatigue, fever, internal bleeding and breathing difficulties.
Nasal swab: A cotton-tipped swab is used to sample material from deep inside the nose. A lab worker wipes it across a culture medium to see whether anthrax bacteria grow. Immobile and rod-shaped, the bacteria can be recognized under a microscope. A high-tech process, called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR , could be used to examine the material for anthrax DNA.
DNA tests: PCR can be used to detect the presence of anthrax genes in blood and spinal fluid.
Blood tests: Technicians examine blood for antibodies, substances produced by the immune system to fight infection. Blood can also be cultured to see whether anthrax bacteria will grow.
Biopsy: Doctors will sometimes sample tissue from a skin lesion and examine it under a microscope for anthrax bacteria.
Treatment: Doctors prescribe antibiotics to prevent illness in someone who has tested positive for spores or bacteria. The drugs are also used to treat sick patients; they are highly effective in curing cutaneous anthrax but rarely effective in curing inhalational anthrax after symptoms have emerged.
Different antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin, doxycycline and amoxicillin, can be used. Standard treatment lasts 60 days.
Sources: Dr. Neil Fishman, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Dr. David Sullivan, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun