May 16, 2024, 2:33:36 PM CDT May 16, 2024, 4:54:54 PM CDT

What parents need to know about bird flu

An infectious disease expert answers common questions about bird flu.

Little girl looking at roosters. Little girl looking at roosters.

Bird flu primarily infects birds like chickens, ducks and turkeys. But in April 2024, there were reports of a human dairy worker who had become infected with bird flu, as well as traces of bird flu found in cows being raised for food. While these reports have sparked concerns, experts say there is no cause for alarm.

Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Chief of Infectious Diseases at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern, answers common questions about the bird flu, how it spreads and how to keep your family healthy.

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is an infection caused by a type of avian influenza virus. There are many kinds of bird flu, but the most common ones are H5N1 and H7N9.

Most of the time, bird flu viruses are found in wild birds and spread it through their droppings. Sometimes, wild birds pass the virus to domestic birds that are being raised for food, including chickens, ducks and turkeys.

More recently, the bird flu has been found in other animals being raised for food, including cows in several states.

Can people get bird flu?

There have only been a few confirmed cases of bird flu in humans in the United States. In these cases, the person worked closely with infected animals.

"Right now, the risk of becoming infected with bird flu for humans is very low," says Dr. Kahn. "We also have no evidence that bird flu can be passed from one human to another human."

While the risk for humans becoming infected from sick animals is very low, the risk is higher for people who are regularly exposed to infected animals. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed special protective guidelines for people who regularly come in contact with animals who could be infected with bird flu.

What are the signs and symptoms of bird flu in people?

The signs and symptoms of bird flu can vary from no symptoms to mild or more serious symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Eye redness
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Acute respiratory distress or respiratory failure
  • Pneumonia
  • Neurologic changes including confusion and seizures

Are chicken, eggs, beef and dairy products safe to consume?

Yes, chicken, eggs, beef and dairy products are all safe to consume.

When you cook chicken and eggs to an internal temperature of 165˚F, it kills all bacteria and viruses, including bird flu. And cooking beef at temperatures ranging from 145˚F to 160˚F (depending on the cut) also kills bacteria and viruses. Learn more about safe cooking temperatures.

Recently, particles of bird flu have been found in milk and other dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese. But despite any initial worries, extensive testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has shown that these particles cannot infect humans with bird flu – because the pasteurization process inactivates the virus. Avoid consuming raw, unpasteurized milk as it can carry dangerous bacteria and cause foodborne illnesses.

When you buy eggs from the grocery store, they're already washed, so you don't have to worry about their shells containing harmful germs. But if you eat eggs from backyard chickens, it's best to clean their shells with a brush or cloth to remove any germs.

How can I prevent my family from getting bird flu?

Here are some ways to help prevent getting infected from bird flu:

  • Make sure you and your children wash their hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Stay away from wild, sick or dead animals.
  • Keep your child away from bird droppings – and make sure they wash their hands if they accidentally touch them.
  • If you have pet birds at home, keep the cage clean and wash your hands thoroughly after you clean it.
  • Avoid unprotected contact with domestic birds (poultry) or other animals that you suspect may have or have had bird flu.

Learn more about how you can protect yourself if you're in regular contact with domestic farm animals.

What's being done to prevent the spread of bird flu?

Public health experts and the CDC are heavily monitoring exposures and helping to contain the spread of the bird flu virus. For example, there are new guidelines that require cattle be tested before it is moved across state lines.

Experts are also working on both a test to detect bird flu and a potential vaccine against bird flu – just in case. The CDC will continue to post regular announcements about the latest news and developments around bird flu.

Learn more

Children's Health infectious disease specialists continue to closely monitor the spread of emerging infections that can be troublesome for children with compromised immune systems. Learn more about our infectious disease offerings.

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