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  • Pink Eye May Be a Symptom of H5N1 Bird Flu

    Published Jun. 04, 2024

    Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, can develop for different reasons. Sometimes it's because of a common cold or allergies. But it can also be a sign of bird flu if you've recently been close to infected birds or farm animals.

    If you develop pink eye after exposure to birds or farm animals, here’s what you should know.

    Don’t Panic: Bird Flu (Avian Influenza A) is Not Common in Humans

    Experts say most Americans have a low risk of developing bird flu, also known as avian influenza A (H5N1).

    Only three people in the United States have developed bird flu in 2024, as of this article’s publication. All three patients became ill after being around infected dairy cows. So far, the virus does not appear to spread from person to person.

    This means it is very important to watch for signs of illness after being around birds or farm animals.

    Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis) Is a Common Symptom of H5N1 Bird Flu

    In two of the three cases in 2024, pink eye was the only symptom of bird flu. The third infected person had eye discomfort and watery discharge along with common cold symptoms. It's important to call your doctor if you develop pink eye after exposure to birds or farm animals.

    People with H5N1 bird flu may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

    • Pink eye, or conjunctivitis
    • Mild cold or flu symptoms: Cough, sore throat, fever, runny nose, headache, or fatigue
    • Serious symptoms: Shortness of breath, difficulty thinking, or seizures

    If you've been near birds or farm animals and you develop any of these symptoms, see a doctor right away to get tested for bird flu.

    How Doctors Test for H5N1 Bird Flu

    If your doctor thinks you might have bird flu, they can test for it by swabbing your eyes, nose, and throat.

    Your doctor will need to send those tests to a state health department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to confirm that you have bird flu. Regular flu tests cannot determine if you have H5N1 bird flu versus the seasonal flu. 

    Treatment and Vaccine for H5N1 Bird Flu

    Your doctor may prescribe an anti-viral medication to treat the infection while you wait for the test results.

    There is currently no vaccine to protect humans against infection with avian influenza A.

    Best Ways to Avoid Catching H5N1 Bird Flu

    Do your part to avoid catching and spreading bird flu. Everyone — particularly farm workers and people at risk of serious illness — should avoid:

    • Unpasteurized milk or cheese
    • Close contact with sick birds and farm animals
    • Feces or litter of infected animals
    • Surfaces and water that comes into contact with sick animals

    If you must work with sick birds or animals, clean their feces, or handle raw milk, the CDC recommends that you wash your hands well with soap and water and wear protective equipment such as water-resistant coveralls, an N95 filtering face mask, safety goggles or a face shield, a hair cover, gloves, and boots.