Avian Flu

What is avian flu?

Avian flu (also called Avian influenza A or bird flu) is a virus that is spread from bird to bird. In rare cases, two strains of the virus can transform into a human virus and spread from person to person. It is mostly a problem in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Symptoms of avian flu

Symptoms usually appear 2 to 7 days after exposure. They are similar to what you experience with respiratory flu. Common symptoms include:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • achy muscles
  • headache
  • pink eye (conjunctivitis).

More serious symptoms can include:

  • severe respiratory problems (shortness of breath, trouble breathing, pneumonia, serious respiratory distress, and respiratory failure)
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting.

At its worst, avian flu can even cause mental confusion and seizures.

What causes avian flu?

The disease is caused by direct contact with an infected bird (touching, plucking), its saliva, and its droppings (including swimming in water contaminated with bird droppings). It can also spread by touching the surface of where an infected bird has been. The virus spreads when your contaminated hands touch your nose, eyes, mouth, or if it is inhaled (through small moisture droplets or dust particles). It can only be passed from human to human if it transforms into a human flu virus.

How is avian flu diagnosed?

Avian flu is commonly diagnosed during a visit to the doctor, who will examine you and ask you questions about your symptoms and about recent events that might have put you in contact with a contaminated bird or human. Lab tests are needed to confirm the virus. Your doctor will take a sample of mucus from your nose or the back of your throat with a long cotton swab. That swab will be sent to the lab for testing.

Can avian flu be prevented or avoided?

The best way to avoid the virus is to avoid direct contact with birds in high-risk areas (when traveling to the countries most affected, visiting live-animal markets, etc.). Avoiding contact with a human known to have the virus also is a good way to avoid illness. As with all viruses, regular hand washing is the best way to control your exposure. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with your hands. Use a tissue if one is available.

If you know you have the disease, do not expose others at work, school, and the community. Try to separate yourself from the rest of your family at home. People who work with live poultry should follow their work safety guidelines.

Because Avian flu is rare, a vaccine to prevent it is not available to the public. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a vaccine they are storing in case the disease becomes widespread in the U.S.

Avian flu treatment

Some antiviral prescription medicines can lessen or shorten the symptoms of the virus. However, it won’t prevent or eliminate the virus. Doctors treat the symptoms by recommending over-the-counter medicines, extra fluids, and rest. For more serious symptoms, hospitalization may be necessary. Hospitalization could involve intravenous fluids (given through a small needle inserted into your vein) and breathing treatments.

Living with avian flu

Living with avian flu may mean a week or two of living with mild symptoms that get better over time. Rest and fluids will help. If it becomes serious, you may have to spend time in the hospital.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Should I be overly concerned about catching avian flu if I plan to travel to one of the affected countries?
  • Can you catch avian flu from cooked poultry?
  • How do you tell avian flu apart from normal, seasonal flu?
  • Is avian flu more serious for young children and older adults?

Resources

Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Information on Avian Influenza

World Health Organization, Avian and Other Zoonotic Influenza