Symptoms and Signs of Biological Warfare

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 9/10/2021

Doctor's Notes on Biological Warfare

Biological warfare involves the use of biological material as weapons, which includes any microorganism (such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi) or toxin (poisonous compounds produced by microorganisms) that can be used to kill or injure people. Biological agents can be disseminated through the air by aerosol sprays, used in explosives, put into food or water, or absorbed through or injected into the skin.

Symptoms of biological warfare exposure depend on the agent used. Common biological agents include anthrax, botulinum toxin, smallpox, viral hemorrhagic fevers, and ricin. Anthrax was used in acts of terrorism as a biological weapon when it was mailed to politicians in the early 2000’s. 

When anthrax enters the skin, symptoms of anthrax infection include swelling, bleeding, and tissue death at the site of infection. Symptoms of inhalation anthrax include

  • massive bleeding and swelling inside the chest cavity.
  • The germs can spread to the blood, leading to shock and blood poisoning, and even death.

What is the Treatment for Biological Warfare?

Protective measures should be started early once it is suspected that a biological warfare agent has been used. Protective measures include use of:

  • Masks
    • Military grade gas masks
    • High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter
    • Paper surgical masks or cloth masks are often not adequate
  • Decontamination of surfaces
    • Remove contaminated clothes
    • Shower with soap and water immediately
  • Medical protection
    • Use latex gloves
    • Wear masks and face shields
    • Isolation rooms for victims
  • Medications
    • Supportive care with oxygen, fluids, and monitoring
    • Antidotes such as atropine for symptoms
    • Antibiotics are used for some bacterial biological warfare agents
    • Antiviral medications for some viral biological warfare agents
    • Vaccines are available for some biological warfare agents and are stockpiled by the federal government in case of an exposure

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.