Bird flu is in the United States. Here's what your patients need to know.

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 13, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • The CDC confirmed that a Colorado man tested positive for positive for avian influenza A(H5) virus (H5 bird flu) in April 2022.

  • Wild water birds are most commonly infected with bird flu, but domestic birds—including poultry—can also contract it.

  • In humans, bird flu can cause mild symptoms such as pink eye, or more severe flu symptoms that could lead to respiratory failure or death.

Bird flu is here, and it’s a problem.

In April 2022, a man in Colorado tested positive for avian influenza A(H5) virus (H5 bird flu), the first case of H5 bird flu recorded in the US. The CDC confirmed this case shortly after, stating that the man was likely directly exposed to the virus while culling poultry.[]

The patient who tested positive reported feeling fatigue for a few days and quickly recovered with the help of the influenza antiviral drug oseltamivir.

However, bird flu virus can cause other, more severe symptoms in humans. Doctors can inform patients about its symptoms and causes, as well as ways to reduce risk of transmission.

Origins and symptoms of bird flu

Avian influenza (or bird flu) usually infects wild water birds.

It can also infect domestic birds and other animals—and, under the right circumstances, humans—according to an article published by the Cleveland Clinic.[]

The strains that most often infect humans include A(H5N1), A(H7N9), A(H9N2), which spread via saliva, feces, and mucus. Chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and falcons who’ve contracted bird flu from wild waterfowl can pass it on to humans through contaminated droplets or dust.

Humans can also contract the virus by rubbing their eyes, mouth, or nose with infected hands.

Different variations of bird and swine flus have led to pandemics since the early 1900s. One example is the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide. A later discovery revealed that H1N1, a virus originating in birds, was the culprit.

Another novel version of H1N1, the H1N1pdm09 virus, surfaced in 2009. In the first year of its appearance, this variant took between 151,700 and 575,400 lives around the world. The unusual aspect of this strain was its ability to inflict serious damage and death predominantly in individuals under age 65.

Symptoms of bird flu may include fever, cough, nausea, vomiting, sore throat, body and muscle aches, runny nose, and conjunctivitis. In more severe cases, bird flu can cause shortness of breath, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, and respiratory failure.

Those who are pregnant, immunocompromised, or over age 65 are at the highest risk of severe illness from bird flu. Fortunately, there are several actions your patients can take to decrease risk of transmission.

Reduce the risk of contracting bird flu

If your patients are concerned about contracting bird flu, remind them that those who work with poultry are at the highest risk.

These workers should wear protective equipment while handling all meat, and implement any other standard precautions. Should a case of bird flu pop up, all production should stop until the individual’s safety is assured.

Those who don’t work in poultry can reduce their risk by avoiding poultry farms while traveling. Your patients can exercise caution when near waterfowl, practice good handwashing techniques, and avoid touching their face with unwashed hands.

There’s a bird flu vaccine for patients living in the US, but it’s currently unavailable to the public. In the meantime, they can rely on consistent hygienic practices to reduce the risk of contracting bird flu.

How to manage infections

While Colorado residents are at low risk of contracting bird flu, health professionals are wary of the H5 virus’s devastating effects.

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, told STAT, “Any time you’re dealing with H5N1, you sleep with one eye open.”[]

That’s why the patient in Colorado who tested positive was immediately isolated and treated with oseltamivir. His symptoms dissipated within a few days.

Early testing is key to successfully managing cases of bird flu, as noted by the Cleveland Clinic.

Upon testing positive, patients may take oseltamivir, or other antiviral medications such as peramivir and zanamivir, for best results.

What this means for you

Bird flu is present in the US. Birds can pass avian influenza onto humans through contaminated droplets, dust, or hand-to-face contact. Advise patients who work with poultry to use protective equipment, and tell all patients to practice effective hand-washing. If your patient thinks they could’ve been exposed and are experiencing flu-like symptoms, encourage them to test immediately. Treat those who test positive with antiviral medication.

Related: Will the flu season deliver a wallop as expected? What doctors need to know
Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter