In its bacterial state, anthrax survives outside of a proper host environment for only about 24 hours. But inside the body, where it gets the nutrients it needs to grow, anthrax germinates and spreads rapidly.
Inhaled anthrax typically begins showing symptoms in seven to 10 days, although it could be as early as two to three days. It can take as long as 60 days after exposure to the anthrax spores for the disease to surface, however, and once the germination begins, the disease progresses very rapidly. It appears to come in two stages:
- It begins with fever, cough, headache, vomiting, chills, weakness, abdominal pain, shortness of breath and chest pain. This first stage may last from a few hours to a few days. Then there may be a brief break in symptoms.
- The second stage of the disease lasts anywhere from two to four days. The symptoms for the second stage include fever, difficulty breathing, sweating, a bluish discoloration of the skin, shock, and finally death.
Cutaneous anthrax, which occurs when the anthrax spore is deposited into a break in the skin, may occur as late as 12 days after exposure. The germination of the bacteria results in local swelling of the skin -- a small papule (bump) will appear. The following day the bump will enlarge into an ulcer and begin discharging a clear fluid. Then, a painless, depressed black scab will form that will dry and fall off within one to two weeks. Treatment with antibiotics may not change the appearance or formation of the bumps, but they decrease the chances that the disease will become systemic.
The gastrointestinal form of anthrax, which occurs from eating or drinking infected meats or water, brings about symptoms that include nausea, vomiting blood, abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, and weakness. Death occurs in 25 to 60 percent of these cases.