What is bird flu?

Patient education: Bird flu (avian influenza)

Bird flu (also known as “avian influenza”) is a type of flu that normally happens in birds. In rare cases, it has spread from infected birds to humans. Even though bird flu is rare in humans, when it does happen it is usually severe.

There are a few different types (also called “strains”) of bird flu. Cases of one strain of bird flu called “H5N1” have occurred in parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. H5N1 can make people very sick.

In the spring of 2013, a new strain of bird flu called “H7N9” was found in people in China. Cases have also occurred in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Canada. Outbreaks have happened during each flu season since 2013, mostly in China. The outbreak in late 2016 and early 2017 was the largest. After the fall of 2017 there were very few cases of H7N9 reported.

Many people who have gotten bird flu were around sick or dead birds in the week before they got sick. Scientists think that people who get bird flu usually get it from sick birds. But if the virus that causes bird flu changes or “mutates,” it might become possible for bird flu to be passed from one person to another. In fact, new strains of the bird flu continue to emerge.

What are the most common symptoms of bird flu?

The most common symptoms are different for different strains of bird flu. So far, all strains tend to cause:

Fever (temperature higher than 100ºF or 37.8ºC)


Trouble breathing

Other symptoms might include:


Headache or body aches

Feeling confused

Sore throat

Runny nose

Is bird flu dangerous?

Yes, bird flu can be very dangerous. It can cause severe illness. More than half of the people who get sick with H5N1 bird flu die. Around 4 in 10 people who get sick with H7N9 bird flu die. People with bird flu are much more likely to have severe illness and to die than people with seasonal flu.

At the same time, experts think some people can be exposed to bird flu and only get a little sick, or not get sick at all. So it’s possible that more people actually get bird flu than we realize.

How can I protect myself from bird flu?

In general, it’s a good idea to:

Wash your hands often with soap and water or use alcohol hand rubs.

Stay away from sick people or animals.

Stay away from chickens and other birds in countries where there are outbreaks of bird flu. This includes markets that sell live birds.

What should I do if I get symptoms of bird flu?

Call your doctor of nurse right away if you flu symptoms and have been around sick or dead birds or traveled to a country that has had cases of bird flu. Do not leave your house unless your doctor or nurse tells you to go to a clinic or hospital. Many people with bird flu need to be in the hospital.

It is especially important to call your doctor or nurse if you:

Have trouble breathing or are short of breath

Feel pain or pressure in your chest or belly

Get suddenly dizzy

Feel confused

Have severe vomiting

While you are at home, rest and drink plenty of fluids. You can also take acetaminophen (sample brand name: Tylenol) to relieve fever and aches.

Do not give aspirin or medicines that contain aspirin to children younger than 18. In children, aspirin can cause a serious problem called Reye syndrome.

Take your child to the doctor if he or she:

Starts breathing fast or has trouble breathing

Starts to turn blue or purple

Is not drinking enough fluids

Will not wake up or doesn’t react to you

Is so fussy that he or she does not want to be held

Gets better from the flu but then gets sick again with a fever or cough

Has a fever with a rash

If you go to a walk-in clinic or a hospital because you think you have bird flu, tell someone right away why you are there. The staff will ask you to wear a mask or to wait somewhere where you are less likely to spread your infection.

Can bird flu be treated?

Yes, people with bird flu usually get medicines called “anti-viral medicines.” These medicines can help people avoid some of the problems caused by bird flu. Antibiotics do not work on the flu.

What if I am pregnant?

Any kind of flu can be very dangerous for pregnant women. If you are pregnant, it is very important that you get vaccinated against seasonal flu. You should also avoid taking care of anyone who has the flu.

If you are pregnant, call your doctor or nurse right away if:

You might have been near someone with the flu.

You think you might be coming down with the flu. In pregnant women, the symptoms of the flu can get worse very quickly. The flu can even cause trouble breathing or lead to death of the woman or her baby. That is why it is so important to talk to doctor or nurse as soon as you notice any flu symptoms.

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