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Anthrax is an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis that primarily affects livestock but that can occasionally spread to humans, affecting either the skin, intestines, or lungs. In humans, the infection can often be treated, but it is almost always fatal in animals.


Anthrax is most often found in the agricultural areas of South and Central America, southern and eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. In the United States, anthrax is rarely reported; however, cases of animal infection with anthrax are most often reported in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. The bacterium and its associated disease get their name from the Greek word meaning "coal" because of the characteristic coal-black sore that is the hallmark of the most common form of the disease.
During the 1800s, in England and Germany, anthrax was known either as "wool-sorter's" or "ragpicker's" disease because workers contracted the disease from bacterial spores present on hides and in wool or fabric fibers. Spores are the small, thick-walled dormant stage of some bacteria that enable them to survive for long periods of time under adverse conditions. The first anthrax vaccine was perfected in 1881 by Louis Pasteur.
The largest outbreak ever recorded in the United States occurred in 1957 when nine employees of a goat hair processing plant became ill after handling a contaminated shipment from Pakistan. Four of the five patients with the pulmonary form of the disease died. Other cases appeared in the 1970s when contaminated goatskin drumheads from Haiti were brought into the U.S. as souvenirs.
Today, anthrax is rare, even among cattle, largely because of widespread animal vaccination. However, some serious epidemics continue to occur among animal herds and in human settlements in developing countries due to ineffective control programs. In humans, the disease is almost always an occupational hazard, contracted by those who handle animal hides (farmers, butchers, and veterinarians) or sort wool. There are no reports of the disease spreading from one person to another.

Anthrax as a weapon

There has been a great deal of recent concern that the bacteria that cause anthrax may be used as a type of biological warfare, since it is possible to become infected simply by inhaling the spores, and inhaled anthrax is the most serious form of the disease. The bacteria can be grown in laboratories, and with a great deal of expertise and special equipment, the bacteria can be altered to be usable as a weapon.
The largest-ever documented outbreak of human anthrax contracted through spore inhalation occurred in Russia in 1979, when anthrax spores were accidentally released from a military laboratory, causing a regional epidemic that killed 69 of its 77 victims. In the United States in 2001, terrorists converted anthrax spores into a powder that could be inhaled and mailed it to intended targets, including news agencies and prominent individuals in the federal government. Because the United States government considers anthrax to be of potential risk to soldiers, the Department of Defense has begun systematic vaccination of all military personnel against anthrax. For civilians in the United States, the government has instituted a program called the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile program in which antibiotics and other medical materials to treat two million people are located so that they could be received anywhere in the country within twelve hours following a disaster or terrorist attack.

Causes and symptoms

The naturally occurring bacterium Bacillus anthracis produces spores that can remain dormant for years in soil and on animal products, such as hides, wool, hair, or bones. The disease is often fatal to cattle, sheep, and goats, and their hides, wool, and bones are often heavily contaminated.
The bacteria are found in many types of soil, all over the world, and usually do not pose a problem for humans because the spores stay in the ground. In order to infect a human, the spores have to be released from the soil and must enter the body. They can enter the body through a cut in the skin, through consuming contaminated meat, or through inhaling the spores. Once the spores are in the body, and if antibiotics are not administered, the spores become bacteria that multiply and release a toxin that affects the immune system. In the inhaled form of the infection, the immune system can become overwhelmed and the body can go into shock.
Symptoms vary depending on how the disease was contracted, but the symptoms usually appear within one week of exposure.

Key terms

Antibody — A specific protein produced by the immune system in response to a specific foreign protein or particle called an antigen.
Antitoxin — An antibody that neutralizes a toxin.
Bronchitis — Inflammation of the mucous membrane of the bronchial tubes of the lung that can make it difficult to breathe.
Cutaneous — Pertaining to the skin
Meningitis — Inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord called the meninges.
Pulmonary — Having to do with the lungs or respiratory system.
Spore — A dormant form assumed by some bacteria, such as anthrax, that enable the bacterium to survive high temperatures, dryness, and lack of nourishment for long periods of time. Under proper conditions, the spore may revert to the actively multiplying form of the bacteria.

Cutaneous anthrax

In humans, anthrax usually occurs when the spores enter a cut or abrasion, causing a skin (cutaneous) infection at the site. Cutaneous anthrax, as this infection is called, is the mildest and most common form of the disease. At first, the bacteria cause an itchy, raised area like an insect bite. Within one to two days, inflammation occurs around the raised area, and a blister forms around an area of dying tissue that becomes black in the center. Other symptoms may include shivering and chills. In most cases, the bacteria remain within the sore. If, however, they spread to the nearest lymph node (or, in rare cases, escape into the bloodstream), the bacteria can cause a form of blood poisoning that rapidly proves fatal.

Inhalation anthrax

Inhaling the bacterial spores can lead to a rare, often-fatal form of anthrax known as pulmonary or inhalation anthrax that attacks the lungs and sometimes spreads to the brain. Inhalation anthrax begins with flulike symptoms, namely fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, and shortness of breath. As early as one day after these initial symptoms appear, and as long as two weeks later, the symptoms suddenly worsen and progress to bronchitis. The patient experiences difficulty breathing, and finally, the patient enters a state of shock. This rare form of anthrax is often fatal, even if treated within one or two days after the symptoms appear.

Intestinal anthrax

Intestinal anthrax is a rare, often-fatal form of the disease, caused by eating meat from an animal that died of anthrax. Intestinal anthrax causes stomach and intestinal inflammation and sores or lesions (ulcers), much like the sores that appear on the skin in the cutaneous form of anthrax. The first signs of the disease are nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe bloody diarrhea.


Anthrax is diagnosed by detecting B. anthracis in samples taken from blood, spinal fluid, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions. The bacteria may be positively identified using biochemical methods or using a technique whereby, if present in the sample, the anthrax bacterium is made to fluoresce. Blood samples will also indicate elevated antibody levels or increased amounts of a protein produced directly in response to infection with the anthrax bacterium. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests amplify trace amounts of DNA to show that the anthrax bacteria are present. Additional DNA-based tests are also currently being perfected.


In the early stages, anthrax is curable by administering high doses of antibiotics, but in the advanced stages, it can be fatal. If anthrax is suspected, health care professionals may begin to treat the patient with antibiotics even before the diagnosis is confirmed because early intervention is essential. The antibiotics used include penicillin, doxycycline, and ciprofloxacin. Because inhaled spores can remain in the body for a long time, antibiotic treatment for inhalation anthrax should continue for 60 days. In the case of cutaneous anthrax, the infection may be cured following a single dose of antibiotic, but it is important to continue treatment so as to avoid potential serious complications, such as inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (meningitis). In the setting of potential bioterrorism, cutaneous anthrax should be treated with a 60-day dose of antibiotics.
Research is ongoing to develop new antibiotics and antitoxins that would work against the anthrax bacteria and the toxins they produce. One Harvard professor, Dr. R. John Collier, and his team have been testing two possible antitoxins on rats. A Stanford microbiologist and a Penn State chemist have also been testing their new antibiotic against the bacteria that cause brucellosis and tularemia, as well as the bacteria that cause anthrax. All of these drugs are still in early investigational stages, however, and it is still unknown how these drugs would affect humans.


Untreated anthrax is often fatal, but death is far less likely with appropriate care. Ten to twenty percent of patients will die from anthrax of the skin (cutaneous anthrax) if it is not properly treated. All patients with inhalation (pulmonary) anthrax will die if untreated. Intestinal anthrax is fatal 25-75% of the time.


Anthrax is relatively rare in the United States because of widespread animal vaccination and practices used to disinfect hides or other animal products. Anyone visiting a country where anthrax is common or where herd animals are not often vaccinated should avoid contact with livestock or animal products and avoid eating meat that has not been properly prepared and cooked.
Other means of preventing the spread of infection include carefully handling dead animals suspected of having the disease, burning (instead of burying) contaminated carcasses, and providing good ventilation when processing hides, fur, wool, or hair.
In the event that exposure to anthrax spores is known, such as in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, a course of antibiotics can prevent the disease from occurring.
In the case of contaminated mail, as was the case in the 2001 attacks, the U.S. postal service recommends certain precautions. These precautions include inspecting mail from an unknown sender for excessive tape, powder, uneven weight or lumpy spots, restrictive endorsements such as "Personal," or "Confidential," a postmark different from the sender's address, or a sender's address that seems false or that cannot be verified. Handwashing is also recommended after handling mail. In order to decontaminate batches of mail before being opened, machines that use bacteria-killing radiation could be used to sterilize the mail. These machines are similar to systems already in place on assembly lines for sterile products, such as bandages and medical devices, but this technique would not be practical for large quantities of mail. In addition, the radiation could damage some of the mail's contents, such as undeveloped photographic film. Microwave radiation or the heat from a clothes iron is not powerful enough to kill the anthrax bacteria.
For those in high-risk professions, an anthrax vaccine is available that is 93% effective in protecting against infection. To provide this immunity, an individual should be given an initial course of three injections, given two weeks apart, followed by booster injections at six, 12, and 18 months and an annual immunization thereafter.
Approximately 30% of those who have been vaccinated against anthrax may notice mild local reactions, such as tenderness at the injection site. Infrequently, there may be a severe local reaction with extensive swelling of the forearm, and a few vaccine recipients may have a more general flu-like reaction to the shot, including muscle and joint aches, headache, and fatigue. Reactions requiring hospitalization are very rare. However, this vaccine is only available to people who are at high risk, including veterinary and laboratory workers, livestock handlers, and military personnel. The vaccine is not recommended for people who have previously recovered from an anthrax infection or for pregnant women. Whether this vaccine would protect against anthrax used as a biological weapon is, as yet, unclear.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., NE, Atlanta, GA 30333. (800) 311-3435, (404) 639-3311.
National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. Building 31, Room. 7A-50, 31 Center Drive MSC 2520, Bethesda, MD 20892.
World Health Organization, Division of Emerging and Other Communicable Diseases Surveillance and Control. Avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland. (+00 41 22) 791 21 11.


"Anthrax." New York State Department of Health Communicable Disease Fact Sheet.
"Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax)." 〈〉.
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Kolata, Gina. "Antibiotics and Antitoxins." New York Times October 23, 2001: Section D, page 4, second column.
Park, Alice. "Anthrax: A Medical Guide." Time 158, no. 19 (October 29, 2001): 44.
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Wade, Nicholas. "How a Patient Assassin Does Its Deadly Work." New York Times October 23, 2001: Section D, page 1.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


an infectious disease seen most often in cattle, horses, mules, sheep, and goats, due to ingestion of spores of Bacillus anthracis. It can be acquired by humans through contact with infected animals or their byproducts, such as carcasses or skins.

Anthrax in humans usually occurs as a malignant pustule or malignant edema of the skin. In rare instances it can affect the lungs if the spores of the bacillus are inhaled, or it can involve the intestinal tract when infected meat is eaten. The condition often is accompanied by hemorrhage, as the exotoxins from the bacillus attack the endothelium of small blood vessels. The condition is treated by the use of antibiotics such as penicillin and the tetracyclines. The malignant edema can be treated with intravenous hydrocortisone. The disorder is also known by a variety of names, including woolsorters' disease, ragpickers' disease, and charbon.
cutaneous anthrax anthrax due to lodgment of the causative organisms in wounds or abrasions of the skin, producing a black crusted pustule on a broad zone of edema.
gastrointestinal anthrax anthrax due to ingestion of poorly cooked meat contaminated with Bacillus anthracis, with deposition of spores in the submucosa of the intestinal tract, where they germinate, multiply, and produce toxin, resulting in massive edema, which may obstruct the bowel, hemorrhage, and necrosis.
inhalational anthrax a usually fatal form of anthrax due to inhalation of dust containing anthrax spores, which are transported to the regional lymph nodes where they germinate, multiply, and produce toxin, and characterized by hemorrhagic edematous mediastinitis, pleural effusions, dyspnea, cyanosis, stridor, and shock. It is usually an occupational disease, such as in persons who handle or sort contaminated wools and fleeces. Antimicrobial prophylaxis is used to prevent the condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published interim guidelines for investigation and response to Bacillus anthracis infection. The evaluation of risk for exposure to aerosolized spores is of highest priority. Obtaining adequate samples, avoiding cross-contamination, and insuring proficient testing and evaluation of test results are all recommended.
meningeal anthrax a rare, usually fatal form of anthrax resembling typical hemorrhagic meningitis due to spread through the bloodstream of Bacillus anthracis from a primary focus of infection; manifestations include cerebrospinal fluid that is hemorrhagic and neurological signs and symptoms.
pulmonary anthrax inhalational anthrax.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Infection by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, which in humans is caused by contact with infected animals or animal products, and ingestion or inhalation of spores of the bacterium. Worldwide concern is focused on the potential use of anthrax as a bioterrorist weapon, in particular as an inhalational agent. The most common naturally occurring form of human anthrax is the cutaneous, and both the inhalational and gastrointestinal forms are quite rare. Anthrax in animals occurs throughout the world, primarily in herbivores, especially cattle, horses, goats, and sheep.
Synonym(s): charbon
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


1. A serious infectious disease of mammals caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, most commonly affecting grazing animals. The disease can be transmitted to humans by handling infected animals or contaminated animal products (resulting in cutaneous lesions), by ingesting contaminated meat, or by inhaling bacterial spores.
2. pl. an·thraces (-thrə-sēz′) Archaic A lesion caused by anthrax.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


An often fatal bacterial infection that occurs when Bacillus anthracis endospores (primarily of grazing herbivorous—cattle, sheep, horses, mules—origin) enter via skin abrasions, inhalation or orally.

ELISA for capsule antigens (95+% senstivity) and protective antigens (72% sensitivity); detection of exotoxins in blood is unreliable.
Prophylaxis (six weeks) with doxycycline or ciprofloxacin; vaccination with anthrax vaccine absorbed; decontamination with aerosolised formalin.
Penicillin, doxycycline; chloramphenicol, erythromycin, tetracycline, ciprofloxacin if (allergic to penicillin).

Anthrax, clinical forms 
Inhalation (Anthrax pneumonia, inhalational anthrax, pulmonary anthrax)
An almost universally fatal form due to inhalation of 1 to 2 µm pathogenic endospores, which are deposited in alveoli, engulfed by macrophages and germinate en route to the mediasitinal and peribronchial lymph nodes, producing toxins.
Mediastinal widening, pleural effusions, fever, nonproductive cough, myalgia, malaise, haemorrhage, cyanosis, SOB, stridor, shock, death; often accompanied by mesenteric lymphadenitis, diffuse abdominal pain and fever.
Once common among handlers of infected animals (e.g., farmers, wool-sorters, tanners, brushmakers and carpetmakers).
Carbuncle, a cluster of boils that later ulcerates, resulting in a hard black centre surrounded by bright red inflammation; rare cases that become systemic are almost 100% fatal.
After ingesting contaminated meat (2 to 5 days); once ingested, spores germinate, causing ulceration, haemorrhagic and necrotising gastroenteritis.
Fever, diffuse abdominal pain with rebound tenderness, melanic stools, coffee grounds vomit, fluid and electrolyte imbalances, shock; death is due to intestinal perforation or anthrax toxemia.

Uncommon; follows ingestion of contaminated meat.
Cervical oedema, lymphadenopathy (causing dysphagia), respiratory difficulty.

Anthrax meningitis
A rare, usually fatal complication of GI or inhalation anthrax, with death occurring 1 to 6 days after onset of illness.
Meningeal symptoms, nuchal rigidity, fever, fatigue, myalgia, headache, nausea, vomiting, agitation, seizures, delirium, followed by neurologic degeneration and death.
Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.


Greek, anthrax, a burning coal, charbon, milzbrand Infectious disease An often fatal bacterial infection which occurs when Bacillus anthracis endospores, primarily of grazing herbivore–cattle, sheep, horses, mules–origin enter via skin abrasions, inhalation, or orally Pathogenesis Anthrax endospores germinate within macrophages, become vegetative bacteria, multiply within the lymphatics, enter the bloodstream and cause massive septicemia Clinical URI-like symptoms, followed by high fever, vomiting, joint pain, SOB, internal and external hemorrhage, hypotension, meningitis, pulmonary edema, shock sudden death; intestinal anthrax is caused by ingestion of contaminated meat; cutaneous anthrax is rare Diagnosis ELISA for capsule antigens–95+% senstivity, for protective antigen–72% sensitivity; detection of exotoxins in blood is unreliable Prevention Prophylaxis–6 wks with doxycycline or ciprofloxacin; vaccination, with anthrax vaccine absorbed; decontamination with aerosolized formalin Management Penicillin, doxycycline; if allergic to penicillin, chloramaphenicol, erythromycin, tetracycline, ciprofloxacin See Bacillus anthracis, Cutaneous anthrax, Industrial anthrax, Inhalation anthrax.
Anthrax, clinical forms
Almost universally fatal–due to inhalation of anthrax spores which germinate and produce toxins resulting in pleural effusions, hemorrhage, cyanosis, SOB, stridor, shock, death
Anthrax pneumonia, inhalational anthrax, pulmonary anthrax An almost universally fatal form due to inhalation of 1 to 2 µm pathogenic endospores which are deposited in alveoli, engulfed by macrophages and germinate en route to the mediastinal and peribronchial lymph nodes, produce toxins Clinical Mediastinal widening, pleural effusions, fever, nonproductive cough, myalgia, malaise, hemorrhage, cyanosis, SOB, stridor, shock, death, often accompanied by mesenteric lymphadenitis, diffuse abdominal pain, fever
Once common among handlers of infected animals, eg farmers, woolsorters, tanners, brushmakers and carpetmakers in an era when brushes were from animals Clinical Carbuncle–a cluster of boils, that later ulcerates, resulting in a hard black center surrounded by bright red inflammation; rare cases which become systemic are almost 100% fatal
After ingesting contaminated meat–2 to 5 days; once ingested spores germinate, causing ulceration, hemorrhagic and necrotizing gastroenteritis Clinical Fever, diffuse abdominal pain with rebound tenderness, melanic stools, vomit, fluid and electrolyte imbalances, shock; death is due to intestinal perforation or anthrax toxemia
Uncommon, follows ingestion of contaminated meat Clinical Cervical edema, lymphadenopathy–causing dysphagia, respiratory difficulty
Anthrax meningitis
A rare, usually fatal complication of GI or inhalation anthrax with death occurring 1 to 6 days after onset of illness Clinical Meningeal symptoms, nuchal rigidity, fever, fatigue, myalgia, headache, N&V, agitation, seizures, delirium, followed by neurologic degeneration and death
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


A disease in humans caused by infection with Bacillus anthracis; marked by hemorrhage and serous effusions in various organs and body cavities and by symptoms of extreme prostration.
[G. anthrax (anthrak-), charcoal, coal, a carbuncle]
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


(an'thraks?) [Gr. anthrax, coal, carbuncle]
Enlarge picture
ANTHRAX: Cutaneous anthrax lesion on the neck (SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
An acute infectious disease caused by contact with, ingestion of, or inhalation of the spores of Bacillus anthracis. People who work with contaminated textiles or animal products usually contract it from skin contact with animal hair, hides, or waste (the most common form of the disease, accounting for 95% of cases), but the bacilli may cause a fatal pneumonia if they are inhaled. See: illustration


The anthrax bacillus has been prepared in aerosol form for use in biological warfare. As a result, some American troops have been vaccinated against the disease during their military training with one of several evolving vaccines. The effectiveness of the vaccine in disease prevention remains uncertain. Vaccination is also given to patients affected by active anthrax to prevent relapses.biological warfare;


Diagnosis is made by isolating B. anthracis from blood, sputum, or skin lesion cultures.


Signs and symptoms usually occur within 1 to 7 days after exposure, but can take up to 60 days. Early treatment helps to reduce fatalities. Cutaneous anthrax presents with small, pruritic lesions similar to insect bites that progress to malignant pustules (large, painless boils), vesicles, or skin ulcers with necrotic centers and surrounding brawny edema, usually on an exposed body surface, such as the skin of the hand. Mortality is about 20% from untreated cutaneous anthrax and is less than 1% when treated with an antibiotic (penicillin, doxycycline, ciprofloxacin). GI anthrax involves acute inflammation of the intestinal tract from ingestion of anthrax spores. Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, decreased appetite and fever, progressing to abdominal pain, vomiting blood, and severe to bloody diarrhea. Antibiotic therapy limits mortality to from 25% to 60%. Inhalation anthrax (also called pulmonary anthrax or Woolsorter's disease) is marked by flulike symptoms progressing to fevers, sweats, cough, weakness, and rapidly developing respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or meningitis. Infection of the lungs may be suggested by the rapid onset of respiratory symptoms and chest x-ray or CT findings that may include widening of the mediastinum with hemorrhagic lymph nodes, hilar fullness, and pleural effusion. The disease is often fatal even with the appropriate antibiotic therapy.


Persons exposed to anthrax (e.g., after its dissemination by bioterrorists) should receive a 60- to 100-day course of preventive therapy with ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, or penicillin G procaine. Individuals who have active infection with anthrax should receive two of the following antibiotics for a 60-day period: aminoglycosides, penicillin G (or amoxicillin), chloramphenicol, ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, imipenem or meropenem, rifampin, tetracycline, or vancomycin. Patients with pleural effusion benefit from drainage of the effusion with a chest tube.

Patient care

Health supervision is provided to at-risk employees, along with prompt medical care of all lesions. Terminal disinfection of textile mills contaminated with B. anthracis is supervised, using vaporized formaldehyde or other recommended treatment. All cases of anthrax (in livestock or people) are reported to local health authorities. Isolation procedures (mask, gown, gloves, hand hygiene, and incineration of contaminated materials) are maintained to protect against drainage secretions for the duration of illness in inhalation, GI, and cutaneous anthrax. For patients with inhalation anthrax, vital signs are monitored and respiratory support is provided. For patients with cutaneous anthrax, lesions are kept clean and covered with sterile dressings. Prescribed antibiotics are administered and the patient is assessed for desired and adverse effects. Frequent oral hygiene and skin care are provided. Oral fluid intake and frequent small, nutritious meals are encouraged.

Medical Dictionary, © 2009 Farlex and Partners


A serious infection of skin, intestine or lungs caused by spores of Bacillus anthracis which can be transmitted to man from infected animals or animal products. There are large and damaging BOILS, severe GASTROENTERITIS and an often fatal PNEUMONIA. Anthrax has been intensively investigated as a bacteriological weapon and concern has been expressed over its suitability as a terrorist weapon. From the Greek anthrax , coal, possibly because of the black centre and the surrounding redness of the skin lesions.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


a fever of the spleen in cattle and sheep caused by toxins released from the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. The disease can spread to humans when infected animal products such as wool and bristles are handled, giving rise to malignant skin lesions and pustules.
Collins Dictionary of Biology, 3rd ed. © W. G. Hale, V. A. Saunders, J. P. Margham 2005


A disease in humans caused by infection with Bacillus anthracis; marked by hemorrhage and serous effusions and symptoms of extreme prostration.
[G. anthrax (anthrak-), charcoal, coal, a carbuncle]
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012