When to see a doctor
See your doctor immediately if you develop a fever, cough and body aches and have recently traveled to a part of the world where bird flu occurs. Be sure to let your doctor know if you visited any farms or open-air markets.
Bird flu occurs naturally in wild waterfowl and can spread into domestic poultry, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. The disease is transmitted via contact with an infected bird's feces, or secretions from its nose, mouth or eyes.
Open-air markets, where eggs and birds are sold in crowded and unsanitary conditions, are hotbeds of infection and can spread the disease into the wider community.
Undercooked poultry meat or eggs from infected birds can transmit bird flu. Poultry meat is safe to eat if it's been cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F (74 C). Eggs should be cooked until the yolks and whites are firm.
The greatest risk factor for bird flu seems to be contact with sick birds or with surfaces contaminated by their feathers, saliva or droppings. In very few instances, bird flu has been transmitted from one human to another. But unless the virus begins to spread more easily among people, infected birds present the greatest hazard.
The pattern of human transmission remains mysterious. People of all ages have contracted bird flu, though the average age of people affected seems to depend on the type of bird flu. The average age of those affected by H7N9 was 62, while the average age of those with H5N1 was only 26.
Recent research suggests that females may be at higher risk of bird flu and its complications. However, it's not clear exactly why that might be so.
People with bird flu may develop life-threatening complications, including:
- Collapsed lung
- Respiratory failure
- Kidney dysfunction
- Heart problems
Although bird flu may kill more than half the people it infects, the number of fatalities is still low because so few people have had bird flu. Fewer than 500 bird flu deaths have been reported to the World Health Organization since 1997.
In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that seasonal influenza is responsible for thousands of deaths each year in the United States alone.
If you suspect that you have bird flu, you need to see your primary care doctor. Let people know you may have flu and ask for a surgical mask to wear during your visit. If you are very ill, you may need to be hospitalized.