Health conditions

Avian influenza (bird flu)

Avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds, Rarely, people may be infected after close contact with infected birds.

There are different strains of bird flu and they can be low or highly pathogenic. This refers to the ability of the virus to cause disease in birds.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms generally appear between 2 and 10 days following exposure to the virus.

Most people will experience mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. However, some strains can lead to severe illness in some people.

The most common symptoms are sore, irritated, red eyes, or conjunctivitis. 

Avian influenza virus can also cause symptoms similar to seasonal flu, including:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Diarrhoea
How is it spread?

Avian influenza does not easily spread to people from birds. However, it can be spread to people who have had close contact with infected birds, including poultry, or their contaminated materials. Contaminated materials include feathers, faeces, or other waste from infected birds.

People infected with an avian influenza do not easily transmit the infection to others.

When person-to-person transmission has previously occurred, it was following close contact with a sick person over several days.

Eating properly cooked poultry products, such as chicken and eggs, does not result in an avian influenza infection.

Who is at risk?

People who are at risk include those who have close contact with infected birds or their contaminated materials and people who are caring for a person infected with the virus.

How to reduce your risk?

If possible, avoid contact with infected birds or people.

If you work around infected birds, you must use personal protective equipment.

A human vaccine is not available for avian influenza. Vaccination with the seasonal flu vaccine is strongly recommended for anyone aged from 6 months and over to help avoid becoming infected by both bird flu and seasonal flu at the same time.

People travelling to areas affected by avian influenza should:

  • avoid poultry farms and live bird “wet” markets
  • wash their hands thoroughly after handling uncooked poultry products such as meat or eggs
  • ensure that poultry or poultry products are cooked thoroughly before eating.
How is it diagnosed?

Avian influenza can be diagnosed using swabs taken from the nose and throat.

How is it treated?

Anti-viral drugs used for seasonal flu are likely to work against avian influenza and are used to treat people with avian influenza virus infections.

Isolation of a person with avian influenza and the use of personal protective equipment by those caring for them helps minimise the risk of disease spread.

I have been exposed to an infected bird – what do I do?

If you believe you have been in contact with an infected bird or contaminated materials, you should self-monitor your health for ten days after the last exposure.

If you become unwell and believe you have been in contact with an infected bird, isolate yourself from others as much as possible until medically assessed, contact your local public health unit (external site), and phone your doctor for an appointment.

It is important you inform medical staff that you may have been in contact with the avian influenza virus. Also ensure you practice good hygiene, such as

  • covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing,
  • washing your hands after coughing, sneezing, or using tissues, and
  • dispose of used tissues in a bin.

In a medical emergency always seek immediate health care or phone 000.

Where to get help

More information

Last reviewed: 27-05-2024
Public Health
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