Bird flu or avian influenza is a viral disease that is spread worldwide. Mostly birds or poultry are affected. However, several hundred people have been infected with bird flu, especially in Asia.

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is also known as avian influenza and has been known for over 100 years. There are only a few but very pathogenic avian influenza viruses. Especially the viruses of the subtype influenza A / H5N1 can cause serious damage in the poultry keeping.

Many animals can die from this infection. For this reason, this severe form of bird flu in animals is also referred to as avian influenza. If there is a very close contact between infected animal and human, there is also the possibility that the person is infected.


The cause is due to a specific pathogen, namely the bird flu virus. This is one of the so-called influenza A viruses, which also occur in a normal people with influenza viruses. The influenza A virus occurs in the subtypes H and N subtypes. Thus, the letters denote the proteins of the virus envelope hemagglutinin and neuraminidase.

If influenza A viruses occur in a human, these usually belong to subtypes H1, H2 and H3. Often the subtypes H5 and H7 are responsible for the outbreak of avian influenza. Especially migratory birds, such as ducks, chickens and turkeys are affected. Significantly less infect pigs, horses, cats or humans.

Symptoms, complaints & signs

Bird flu affects mainly chickens, turkeys and ducks. In the animals, the disease manifests itself in the form of fever, frugality, diarrhea and blackening of the comb. Mutation can also infect humans with bird flu. Especially dangerous are the viruses H5N1 and H7N9. In most cases, bird flu is harmless in humans. In some cases, a serious illness is possible.

The incubation period is a few hours to several days. The first symptoms in humans occur in a flash and are similar to flu. The person suffering from a high fever and gets severe head, neck and muscle pain. Cough and shortness of breath are added. Rarely, the disease is initiated by nosebleeds or mucosal bleeding.

In the further course of the bird flu focuses on the respiratory tract. Pneumonia, up to the failure of the respiratory organs are the result. In patients, an increase in liver enzymes can be detected. The white and red blood cells decrease and anemia occurs.

Furthermore, disorders of renal function occur and the patient suffers cardiac arrhythmias. Nearly half of all patients admitted to hospital with avian influenza die from respiratory failure. This can be attributed to the fact that it is an unknown pathogen for our immune system.

Diagnosis & History

Avian influenza is manifested in humans by symptoms that also occur in severe influenza. The first symptom is usually high fever, which is accompanied by coughing and dyspnoea. It can also lead to diarrhea. Rarely, abdominal pain, vomiting and nausea occur. In contrast, body aches, headaches, and sore throats do not occur in all cases. In very severe cases, even pneumonia may arise.

If there is suspicion of bird flu, the diagnosis is made by a pathogen detection. Reliable test procedures are available to detect avian flu viruses within a few hours. As a further material for tests can also serve a throat or nose swab and a coughed bronchial secretions. Bird flu is suspected if the person shows influenza-like symptoms after coming into contact with an already infected animal.

The course of bird flu can be very different in a human. It can come to no complaints, mild cold symptoms to severe pneumonia. In this case, a fatal course of bird flu is possible. Often bird flu takes a very difficult course in humans.

The concomitant disease of a person from a normal flu and an avian influenza can lead to a mixture and alteration of the genetic material of the different viruses. This poses a high risk because these mixed viruses would be more easily transmitted from human to human than avian influenza viruses. Thus, an epidemic can be triggered in the further course.


The possible sequelae of bird flu include the so-called cytokine storm (hypercytokinemia). It is a life-threatening immune system derailment. As a result, there is a feedback between immune cells and cytokines. The adaptive immune response fails and there is an overreaction of the defense system.

For example, defense system cells such as macrophages or T cells release significant amounts of cytokine, which results in pronounced inflammation. In the further course threatens a heavy pneumonia (influenza pneumonia). Similarly, a failure of the organs and an acute lung failure is conceivable. In such cases, the patient requires intensive care therapy and artificial respiration.

Avian flu can cause additional symptoms such as a lack of white blood cells, platelet deficiency (thrombocytopenia), septic shock or anemia (anemia). Some patients also experience renal insufficiency (kidney weakness). In extreme cases, the kidneys fail completely.

One of the worst consequences of avian flu is the toxic shock. The reason for this is the significantly more radical defense reaction of the body to bird flu viruses in contrast to the common flu viruses. In the worst case, it leads to a multi-organ failure, which leads to the death of the patient.

In the process, death occurs either through lung failure or kidney failure. Bird flu is particularly dangerous when bird flu viruses and common flu viruses meet. This makes it easier to transfer these virus hybrids from one person to another.

When should you go to the doctor?

If the general state of health deteriorates within a few hours or several days, this is to be interpreted as a warning signal. There is a need for action, as bird flu can lead to a serious illness. To clarify the cause of the condition and position a diagnosis, a doctor is needed. Headache, neck dislocation or muscular discomfort are the first signs of a disease.

If the person complains of sudden nosebleeds or mucous membrane disorders, he should discuss the perceived changes with a doctor. If it comes to disturbances of the respiratory activity, a general malaise or a malaise, the consultation of a doctor is advisable.

An internal heaviness, insomnia, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue or fatigue are other complaints that should be examined by a doctor. Cough, sputum or sweating should also be evaluated by a physician. If there is shortness of breath, panic or anxiety, immediate action should be taken. In an acute situation, an ambulance is to be alerted.

To avoid complications and reduce other risks, follow the instructions of the ambulance service until the doctor arrives. As avian influenza is a highly contagious disease, people who have been in the immediate vicinity of a sufferer should have their condition checked as a precautionary measure.

Treatment & Therapy

The treatment of bird flu aims to fight the viruses and alleviate the symptoms. The viruses are then used with corresponding virus-killing drugs. These are also called antivirals. To alleviate the painkiller and antipyretic drugs are suitable.


By avoiding any contact with infected animals avian flu can be prevented. However, the risk of infection is very low even in contact with infected animals. Worldwide, approximately 200 million animals have died of bird flu. Here, only about 500 people have been infected with the virus.

Despite the low risk, appropriate precautions should be taken. Above all, this includes avoidance of contact with infected animals. If contact should be maintained, attention should be paid to a thorough hand hygiene. Furthermore, poultry and eggs should be boiled or fried for a long time.

By heating at 70 degrees Celsius, the viruses are killed. The consumption of raw or half-cooked poultry meat should be avoided. Anyone who finds sick or dead wild birds should not touch them, but notify the responsible veterinary office. A normal flu shot does not help against bird flu viruses. So far, there is no vaccine against bird flu.


In most cases, those affected by avian flu rely on a quick and especially on an early treatment by a doctor. The measures of a follow-up are usually clearly limited and are almost not available to the person concerned. Therefore, a doctor should be consulted at the very first symptoms and signs of the disease so that complications or other symptoms can not occur in the further course.

In general, no self-healing can occur in avian flu disease. The disease itself is usually treated by taking different medications. The affected person should pay attention to a regular intake and also to a correct dosage in order to counteract the complaints correctly and permanently.

In case of ambiguity or questions, a doctor should be consulted first. Furthermore, bed rest is recommended so as not to burden the body unnecessarily. In some cases, supporting and helping one's family with this disease is very important, which can also alleviate depression and other mental disorders. With proper treatment, avian influenza does not reduce or limit the life expectancy of the person affected.

You can do that yourself

If you experience typical bird flu symptoms such as cough, wheezing, or feeling unwell after coming into contact with potentially ill animals, a doctor should be consulted. The physician is to be informed of the suspicion, so that the necessary quarantine measures can be initiated.

Patients who suffer from bird flu must comply with the medical requirements. As a rule, treatment in the hospital is required. After discharge, protection and bed rest apply. Symptoms such as fever and gastrointestinal symptoms may persist for a few more days. The usual general measures apply, such as light food, lots of sleep and the avoidance of stress. The physical warning signals must be observed. In case of doubt, the doctor should be informed as there is a risk of the disease being carried over.

The bird flu should have subsided completely after one to two weeks. The medical check-up may detect any residues of the H5N1 pathogen. If the pathogen has been completely killed by the medical treatment, no further action is necessary. The cause of the disease should be determined so that other people are protected from infection. Accompanying this, the health and disease protection authorities must also be involved.

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