Avian flu

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

An initial assessment will be made over the phone, at a GP surgery, at home or in a side room at a hospital.

Making a diagnosis

A diagnosis is made based on your symptoms and the likelihood that you have been exposed to an infected bird.

The doctor will ask if you have recently travelled to an area affected by avian flu and if you have been close (within one metre) to live or dead domestic fowl or wild birds, including those at bird markets.

You will also be asked if you have had close contact (touching or speaking distance) with anyone who has a severe respiratory illness, or if you have had contact with anyone who had an unexplained death and who was from an area that had an outbreak.


The following tests will be done to establish whether you have avian flu:

  • chest X-ray,
  • liver function tests,
  • nose and throat swab,
  • blood tests, and
  • a molecular test(a process that detects different bacteria).

If the laboratory tests and chest X-ray are normal, it is unlikely to be avian flu.


Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that live in the body. Some can cause illness and disease and others are good for you.
The liver is the largest organ in the body. Its main jobs are to secrete bile (to help digestion), detoxify the blood and change food into energy.
An X-ray is a painless way of producing pictures of inside the body using radiation.
Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.
A high temperature, also known as a fever, is when someone's body temperature is 38°C/100.4°F or above.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Patients who have suspected symptoms of avian flu will be advised to stay at home or will be cared for in hospital (in isolation from other patients).

The patient may be kept in isolation for seven to 10 days, depending on the type of flu.

The main types of treatment include:

  • rest,
  • drinking plenty of fluids combined with proper nutrition, and
  • taking medications to help with fever and pain, such as aspirin (not suitable for children) and paracetamol.

Antiviral medication

Antiviral drugs work by stopping the virus from multiplying in your body.

Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) would probably be effective in treating influenza caused by the H5N1 (bird flu) virus, but more studies are needed to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Treating complications

Complications, such as bacterial pneumonia, may develop in some people and can be treated with antibiotics.

Those who are severely affected may need to receive extra oxygen to help them breathe and/or be put on a ventilator (machine to help you breathe).


Pain is an unpleasant physical or emotional feeling that your body produces as a warning sign that it has been damaged.
A fever or high temperature is when someone's body temperature is 38°C/100.4°F or above.
Antibiotics are medicines that can be used to treat infections caused by micro-organisms, usually bacteria or fungi. Examples of antibiotics include amoxicillin, streptomycin and erythromycin.
Oxygen is an odourless, colourless gas that makes up about 20% of the air we breathe.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

As the avian flu virus is carried by birds, there is no way to prevent it from spreading. However, monitoring how wild birds migrate should give early warnings of the arrival of infected flocks. This means that the birds could be targeted and collected on arrival to stop the virus spreading to other birds.

Flu jab

Current flu vaccinations do not protect against disease caused by the H5N1 strain. Various worldwide organisations are working together to produce a vaccine against avian flu. 

However, you are entitled to a free seasonal flu vaccination if you work in close contact with poultry. This includes people who:

  • work in areas where poultry are kept for rearing or egg production
  • handle or catch live poultry
  • sort eggs in poultry houses
  • slaughter or clean poultry

Free flu vaccination is offered to poultry workers because they are at slightly greater risk of catching bird flu if there is an outbreak.

If the bird flu and human flu viruses were to mix, a new flu virus could be made. A flu vaccination protects against human flu, reducing the risk of the viruses mixing even if a person had both human flu and bird flu at the same time.

The flu vaccine is being offered as a precautionary measure to eliminate this slight risk.

General precautions

  • Practise good hygiene, such as washing your hands regularly.
  • Turn away from other people and cover your nose and mouth with tissues when you cough or sneeze.
  • Put the tissues in the bin straight away after use and wash your hands with soap and warm water.
  • Do not go to public places if you are ill and avoid contact with children or people with underlying illnesses.
  • When you go to a GP surgery, tell the receptionist about your symptoms so you can be seated away from other people and given a surgical mask if necessary.
  • Stay in good general health and make sure you have had any recommended vaccinations, such as the pneumococcal vaccination and seasonal flu vaccine if you are in a high-risk group (for example, if you have asthma or are 65 years and over).

Preparing meat

Avian flu is not transmitted through cooked food. It is safe to eat poultry and eggs in areas that have had outbreaks of bird flu.

As a precaution, always follow good hygiene when preparing and cooking meat:

  • Use different utensils for cooked and raw meat.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before and after handling meat.
  • Make sure meat is thoroughly cooked and piping hot before serving.

Contact with birds

You can feed wild birds and ducks, but it is important to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Do not go near sick or dead birds.

Keep away from bird droppings if possible and wash your hands thoroughly if you accidentally touch some.


In general, you do not need to change the way you look after your pets. If you have a dog that sometimes catches wild birds, try to avoid areas where this is likely to happen. In theory, H5N1 can be passed on to other animals, but it is very unlikely.


If you are travelling in a country that has had avian flu outbreaks, do not go to live animal markets or poultry farms. Do not go near bird droppings or dead birds, and do not bring any live birds or poultry products back with you, including feathers.

The Department of Health and the HSE have plans in place to manage a potential outbreak in Ireland, although this is thought to be highly unlikely.


Body tissue is made up of groups of cells that perform a specific job, such as protecting the body against infection, producing movement or storing fat.  

Sneezing is an involuntary expulsion of air and bacteria from the nose and mouth.

Useful Links

Health Protection Surveillance Centre


Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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