What is bird flu?

Avian flu, or bird flu, is a type of influenza A that occurs naturally in wild birds and can spread to domesticated birds. In rare cases, it affects humans.

There are many varieties of bird flu, but when most people talk about bird flu, they are referring to viruses that originated in Asia, specifically H7N9 or H5N1, the classic bird flu. Both viruses have caused small outbreaks around the world in the past, but neither has ever been detected in the United States.

Here’s what you should know about bird flu, including risks, symptoms and precautions.

Avian Influenza in Birds and Humans

Avian influenza occurs naturally in wild birds and can also be transmitted to livestock and poultry. However, transmission to humans is very rare. Bird flu is spread through contact with the saliva, mucus or feces of infected birds. For humans to get the virus, a lot of the virus has to get into their eyes, nose or mouth. Nearly all people who contract bird flu contract it after close contact with an infected bird.

Human-to-human transmission has only been detected in extremely rare cases. However, global health officials monitor bird flu because the virus has a high mortality (death rate). If the virus mutates or changes so that it can more easily spread from person to person, it becomes more dangerous.

How influenza viruses change with antigenic drift and transfer

current risk of transmission

The risk of contracting bird flu is extremely low, especially in the United States. Since 2013, 1,568 people worldwide have been infected with H7N9. Since 2003, approximately 862 people worldwide have been infected with H5N1. Few other strains of bird flu have been diagnosed in the United States, but more severe strains have never occurred in humans or birds in the country.

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bird flu symptoms

In humans, the symptoms of bird flu are the same as seasonal flu. Some cases are mild, while others are severe. The mortality rate of bird flu is much higher than that of seasonal flu. About 53% of people diagnosed with H5N1 and 50% of people diagnosed with H7N9 have died.

Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • sore throat and runny nose
  • pain, including headache
  • fatigue
  • conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Difficulty breathing

risk factor

People who live or work near birds are at the highest risk of contracting bird flu. Avian flu is more common in some parts of the world, especially Asia, and your risk increases if you have recently traveled to a country that is experiencing bird flu.

The risk of serious complications is higher in people who are infected with bird flu, are pregnant, are immunocompromised (weak immune systems), or are 65 and older.

Avian Influenza Prevention

To further reduce the risk of contracting bird flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people:

  • Avoid contact with wild birds.
  • Keep away from sick or dead poultry.
  • Avoid contact with bird droppings, whether wild or domestic.
  • Report dead wild birds to state agencies and never handle them with your bare hands.
  • If traveling, avoid farms and poultry markets in countries affected by bird flu.

food preparation tips

There has never been a documented case of humans contracting bird flu through undercooked or undercooked food. However, scientists know that other viruses can be spread through substances such as blood in raw food.

To be extra careful, the CDC recommends that people cook poultry and eggs thoroughly and wash their hands when they’re ready. The CDC recommends against preparing poultry or eggs when traveling in countries affected by bird flu.

Avian Influenza Diagnosis and Treatment

Avian flu cannot be diagnosed by symptoms alone, it must be diagnosed by laboratory tests. For the test, your doctor will swab your nose and analyze the mucus. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have recently traveled to a country with bird flu, or if you have been exposed to birds.

Bird flu can be treated with antiviral drugs. If you think you’ve been exposed to bird flu, these medicines may also prevent you from contracting the disease.

Avian Influenza Vaccine

The seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against bird flu. However, if you have both seasonal flu and bird flu, getting vaccinated may help prevent serious illness that can occur.

There is currently no publicly available avian influenza vaccine. However, the U.S. government has a stockpile of H5N1 vaccines that can be deployed if the virus starts spreading easily between humans.


Avian flu is a cause for concern because of its high mortality rate. However, it is extremely rare in humans. Although bird flu occurs in birds around the world, it has infected fewer than 2,500 people since 2003. However, it’s still important to limit contact with birds and guano, and tell your doctor about the flu if you get sick after visiting a country where birds are active.

VigorTip words

The COVID-19 pandemic has upset many people. Bird flu is worrying, but it’s important to remember that it’s extremely rare in humans. The two most dangerous strains of avian influenza, H5N1 and H7N9, have never been found in birds or humans in the United States. As always, focusing on your overall health, practicing good hygiene, and staying up to date on vaccines can help keep you safe.

How many different types of flu are there?

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which countries have had bird flu outbreaks in the past?

    Avian influenza cases occur naturally in bird populations around the world. Severe cases of H5N1 or classic avian influenza have occurred in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Pacific islands. In 2014, the only North American case of H5N1 occurred in Canada, in a person who had recently returned from China.

  • Is there a specific vaccine for bird flu?

    There is no publicly available avian influenza vaccine. However, the federal government has a stockpile of vaccines against the H5N1 bird flu virus, which will be distributed if the virus begins to spread from person to person.

  • When was the first recorded human case of avian influenza?

    In 1997, Hong Kong confirmed the first human case of H5N1 infection, the classic bird flu. In 2014, Canada experienced its first H5N1 case in the Americas. The United States has never reported a human case.

  • What is the death rate of bird flu?

    The mortality rate of bird flu is much higher than that of seasonal flu. About 53% of those infected with H5N1 and 40% of those infected with H7N9 have died.

  • Are pet birds at risk of avian flu?

    The risk of avian flu in pet birds is very low, as long as they are kept indoors and out of contact with wild birds. However, poultry, including poultry, are at higher risk for avian influenza. North American bird flu outbreaks have occasionally occurred in poultry in the United States, but H5N1 has never occurred in birds in the United States.