The bird flu, avian influenza, H5N1, HPAI - words that previously concerned only farmers - have now reached the average person. Whispers of human infections, tainted eggs, dirty milk - rumors are spreading fast about this virus and what it will mean for our daily lives.

But should you be scared? I've been covering news about the virus for months, sorting through daily updates as detection of the virus has spread both in geographical range and, recently, in species. With the situation rapidly changing, I'm already seeing misinformation spreading - and I want to help clear things up for you so that you can make informed decisions about your health.

Note: I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice. However, I have included all sources from reputable studies and organizations (such as the Center for Disease Control) to summarize what has been learned so far about the virus and its risk to humans.

What is "bird flu"?

In lay terms, "bird flu" is a pandemic for the birds. More properly, it is known as avian influenza. The agricultural industry often refers to it as "HPAI", which stands for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, a reference to strains of the virus that spread very rapidly. Like any virus, there are many variations and mutations; "H5N1" happens to be the most common and well-known.

Bird flu varies in the severity of its symptoms; mild bird flu only causes issues like the human flu - coughing/sneezing and decreased food consumption. However "HPAI" is a much more serious version of the virus, and results in extreme physical symptoms, including death.

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Does bird flu only infect birds?

The short answer: no. Bird flu can infect other species, including humans.

While birds are the most intensely affected by avian influenza, the virus can spread to other species:

Per the CDC, the virus has been detected in "wild mammals such as foxes, bears, seals, and sea lions, and in domesticated animals, including pets such as cats and dogs, farmed mink and foxes, and livestock such as goats and cows" - with reports spanning 20 states to date.

Is it safe to eat eggs, chicken, beef, and dairy?


At this time there is no significant threat to these food supplies and consumers should not expect to see increased prices or scarcity.

Poultry restricted area, illustration of h5n1 virus
Getty / Canva

So can the bird flu be transmitted to humans?

On April 5, 2024, an agricultural worker was confirmed sick from the bird flu - transferred likely from working with dairy cattle who had been infected. In its statement, the CDC claimed:

CDC does not believe these developments change the overall H5N1 bird flu human health risk for the U.S. general public, which CDC continues to believe is low. CDC has preliminary analysis of genetic sequences showing that these viruses remain primarily avian and are not well adapted to people. There were no changes that would make these viruses resistant to current FDA-approved and recommended flu antiviral medications. These viruses also are very closely related to two existing HPAI A(H5N1) candidate vaccine viruses that are already available to manufacturers, and which could be used to make vaccine if needed.

The CDC then cautioned "people with close or long unprotected exposures (not wearing respiratory or eye protection) to infected birds or other animals (including livestock), or to environments contaminated by infected birds or other animals, are at greater risk of infection."

As of July 2024, four people - all dairy workers - have been infected with the bird flu. They were located in Texas, Michigan, and Colorado. No human infection has been reported in Washington.

infographic explaining symptoms of bird flu
Getty / Canva

You should still be careful about bird flu, though

Although the CDC is currently being conservative with its message, Dr. Michelle Wille told NPR, "I think we are at a bit of a precipice where something interesting or unfortunate could happen."

NPR takes a deep dive into the science of avian influenza and the unfolding situation with its spread to other livestock and humans. In it, scientists caution that we may be seeing early adaptations of the virus as it transforms to be able to better infect mammals, including humans.

In fact, new research published in July has stirred up the possibility that bird flu's shift to infecting dairy cattle might mean it is increasingly more adaptive to spreading between mammals - which would be a major concern for humans.

That doesn't mean we should panic about the situation, but we should remain aware of any further changes or alerts. More importantly, we should make sure to avoid contact with sick or dead birds: the USDA has a quick guide on how to deal with deceased birds when found. Meanwhile, if you think you might be sick, become aware of the symptoms (shown in the graphic above).

Your Guide To Bird Flu

Gallery Credit: Jaime Skelton

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