Bird Allergies – Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Treatment

Bird Allergies

Also called: Inhaled Bird Allergen, Feather Allergies

Summary

Bird allergies are immune system reactions in humans to the feather dander (known as feather dust) and fecal matter of birds. In most cases, symptoms are related to allergic rhinitis (hay fever). But occasionally, they can be more severe, significantly reducing lung capacity and causing breathing difficulties, coughing and weight loss.

Those at risk for bird allergies include pet owners and individuals who work with birds on a regular basis, such as zookeepers, bird fanciers and farm workers. Although bird allergies can produce serious symptoms, the percentage of the population that is allergic to birds is significantly lower than the numbers of people allergic to cats or dogs.

Physicians can treat the symptoms of bird allergies by prescribing corticosteroids and other drugs that reduce inflammation in the airways. However, the most effective treatment for bird allergies is to limit or eliminate regular exposure to birds and the allergens they create.

About bird allergies

Bird allergies cause allergic reactions in people who spend a lot of time around birds and birdcages, and who become sensitized to the allergens associated with feathers, dander and fecal matter.

An allergic reaction is the immune system’s attempt to defend the body from a perceived threat that, in reality, is harmless. During this process, a foreign substance called an allergen comes into contact with the body and triggers the immune system to produce antibodies. 

Each antibody is specifically designed to attach to and attack a particular antigen. The antibody that responds to allergens is called immunoglobulin E (IgE). As IgE defends the body, it coats and activates mast cells. These cells respond by bursting and releasing the chemicals that trigger an allergic reaction, producing symptoms such as itchy eyes, runny nose and sneezing. In some cases, the reaction is more extreme, resulting in hives, eczema (skin inflammation) or breathing difficulties.

As with all animal allergies, dried dander ­– known as “feather dust” in birds – is a major trigger for those who suffer from bird allergies. Birds have three types of feathers – contour, down and flight. Down feathers have short shafts, and serve to keep the bird warm by trapping air close to the body. These feathers disintegrate slowly into dander.

As a bird preens, shakes its body or ruffles its feathers, it kicks up dander and sends it into the air, where it can be inhaled by humans. Feather dust is also found in products that use bird feathers, such as pillows, comforters and down jackets.

Bird droppings can also trigger allergies in susceptible people. Most people with bird allergies experience relatively minor symptoms associated with allergic rhinitis (hay fever). However, others experience more substantial forms of this allergy, such as:

  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Also called allergic alveolitis, this is a complex syndrome rather than a single disease. Repeated inhalation of dust containing organic antigens triggers several diseases, including bird fancier’s lung (also known as pigeon lung disease or pigeon breeder’s lung). Feathers, droppings and feather dust from birds and birdhouses are the major sources of this disorder, which produces asthma–like symptoms and decreased lung capacity in humans. It afflicts bird keepers and others who spend large amounts of time around many birds. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis can occur in one of three forms:

    • Acute. Affects the individual within four to eight hours after inhalation of a high level of feathers, feather dust and/or droppings. Symptoms usually cease when exposure is ended.

    • Subacute. Results from long-term exposure. Ending exposure also tends to relieve symptoms.

    • Chronic. A nonreversible form of bird fancier’s lung can take hold when subacute exposure continues.

  • Bird-egg syndrome. People who are allergic to eggs may also have their allergy triggered by inhaling bird antigens. As the body becomes sensitized to bird allergens, the individual reacts to exposure to bird antigens or egg intake.

Potential causes of bird allergies

Consistent, sustained exposure to birds causes bird allergies. Individuals at risk include those who own birds as pets, or who work with birds on a daily basis. The major sources of allergens that cause people to react include:

  • Feather dander. Known as “feather dust,” this occurs when feather shafts disintegrate slowly into a powdery dust, or dander. Some birds create so much dander that they coat most surfaces in a room nearly every day. They are referred to as powder-down birds, and include cockatoos, cockatiels and African grey parrots. The dust produced by powder-down birds is sucked into furnace air filters and duct work and distributed everywhere in the house.

  • Bird feces. Often a source of bacteria, dust, fungi and mold. These allergens can become airborne when bird feces dry and trigger symptoms.

Dirty bird cages, overcrowded cages and the excessive amounts of feather dust shed by certain types of birds are some of the factors that create the levels of allergens likely to trigger a reaction. Larger parrots are among birds known to produce great amounts of feather dust.

Feather dust is also found in products that use bird feathers, such as pillows, comforters and down jackets. In some people with bird allergies, use of these products can lead to an allergic reaction.

Related allergies and conditions

Bird allergies can trigger a number of related allergic or respiratory conditions. These include:

  • Allergic rhinitis. Inflammation of the mucous membrane lining the nose caused by an allergic reaction to pollen, dust or another airborne substance.

  • Allergic sinusitis. Inflammation of the lining of the sinus cavities due to an allergic reaction.

  • Allergic conjunctivitis. Inflammation of the conjunctiva (tissue lining the inside of the eyelid) due to an allergic reaction.

  • Asthma. Chronic inflammation of the airways that causes shortness of breath and breathing problems.

  • Egg allergies. One of the eight most common food allergies. People with bird allergies are often also sensitized to consumed egg products.

Signs and symptoms of bird allergies

For most individuals with bird allergies, the symptoms are minor and related to allergic rhinitis (hay fever). In many cases, individuals with these symptoms view them as nothing more than a nuisance and consequently never seek treatment. These lesser signs and symptoms usually occur several hours after exposure to bird allergens and include:

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy and watery eyes
  • Black circles under the eyes (allergic shiners)
  • Hives
  • Coughing
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy nose
  • Postnasal drip

However, some with bird allergies suffer symptoms that are more significant and potentially threatening to their health. Those afflicted with bird fancier’s lung may experience decreased lung capacity. Symptoms often first appear within two years of regular exposure to birds such as pigeons and budgies. But it can take as long as 10 to 20 years before the first signs appear. Symptoms of the three types of bird fancier’s lung include:

  • Acute bird fancier’s lung
    • Coughing
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Chills and fever

  • Subacute bird fancier’s lung
    • Dry cough
    • Progressive breathing difficulties

  • Chronic bird fancier’s lung
    • Dry cough
    • Severe, progressive breathing difficulties
    • Weight loss

Individuals who experience bird-egg syndrome are likely to suffer the symptoms associated with egg allergies, including:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Hives
  • Skin rash
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing

In extreme cases, an egg allergy may provoke anaphylactic shock, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that demands emergency medical attention. Anaphylactic shock is characterized by multi-system allergic manifestations, often including difficulty breathing and a dangerous drop in blood pressure. 

Diagnosis and treatment of bird allergies

A physician is likely to compile a medical history, conduct a physical examination and ask a patient about symptoms related to a potential bird allergy. Other tests that may be conducted include an allergy skin test (the primary means of diagnosing bird allergies) and a radioallergosorbent test, which looks for the presence of allergy-specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) in the bloodstream.

Most reactions to bird allergies are minor and require little or no medical treatment. Those who suffer symptoms similar to hay fever are likely to see them disappear once they no longer are exposed to the allergen.

However, a physician may recommend over-the-counter or prescription drugs to treat relatively minor symptoms. These include:

  • Antihistamines. A group of drugs that block the effects of histamine, a chemical that contributes to the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

  • Decongestants. Medications that shrink swollen nasal tissues, relieving symptoms of nasal swelling, congestion and mucus secretion.

  • Corticosteroids. These anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed to treat bird fancier’s lung.

Those who have more significant symptoms may need to be treated with allergy shots (immunotherapy). Allergy shots are a form of allergy and asthma treatment where low doses of an allergen are injected into a patient over a period of time. The goal is to increase the patient’s tolerance to the allergen while reducing symptoms brought on by an allergic reaction. 

A physician is particularly likely to recommend allergy shots for those with bird allergies who have experienced anaphylactic shock. 

It is important to note that individuals who choose to give away their pet birds may not notice a reduction in symptoms for several weeks after the animal is removed. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), it takes about 20 weeks after the removal of a pet for the allergen levels in a home to reach those of a home without animals.

Prevention of bird allergies

The best way to prevent bird allergies is to avoid birds as much as possible, so that one does not become sensitized to a bird allergen.  Avoidance is also the most effective way of controlling bird allergy symptoms. However, this is not always possible or desirable. Those who have pet birds often find it hard to part with the animals. People with bird allergies who are unwilling to give up their pets can take several steps to reduce their exposure to the offending allergen, including:

  • Always washing hands after handling the bird. Hands should be kept away from the eyes, nose and mouth until they are clean.

  • Using a damp mop or electrostatic dust cloth to regularly clean walls, furniture and flooring.

  • Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter to remove dander from carpets and rugs. HEPA filters are also available for heating and air conditioning units.
  • Keeping rooms well–ventilated by opening windows when possible.

  • Making sure the bird’s home is in a room other than the bedroom.

  • Having someone who is not allergic to birds clean the bird’s cage, an area where allergens tend to build up in great concentrations. If this is not possible, wear a particle dust mask when cleaning the bird cage and do not shake the cage while cleaning.

Bathing a bird to get rid of dander (feather dust) is not a good solution. Not only is frequent bathing likely to traumatize the bird, but it also ultimately results in drier skin and increased dander production.

Similarly, those who work with birds and suffer avian-related allergies would do best to find an alternative career. However, if that is not an option, they should take the following steps to reduce exposure to bird dander:

  • Keep bird cages clean
  • Avoid cage overcrowding
  • Provide proper ventilation
  • Use an air purification system

It is important to note that these steps alone may not be enough to prevent symptoms in severe cases of disorders such as bird fancier’s lung. In such situations, only a complete avoidance of the allergen is likely to arrest symptoms.

Bird feathers recently have been at the center of a great debate – whether or not those with allergies and asthma should use feather–based pillows, duvets and comforters.

For years, conventional wisdom argued that those with allergies or asthma should steer clear of feather–based sleeping products, and instead use synthetic or polyester alternatives. However, recent evidence has indicated that dust mites are able to more easily penetrate the pores of synthetics than feathers. As a result, synthetic sleeping products have higher concentrations of dust mites than those that are feather-based, according to these studies.

Many experts now argue that those with dust mite allergies should use feather-based products, while those with bird allergies should use synthetics. However, the debate continues. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) recommends that individuals with bird allergies avoid feather-based pillows and comforters. When not possible, patients should encase the pillow or comforter in an “allergy proof” cover with a zipper so the feathers cannot escape and trigger symptoms.

Some people with bird allergies may benefit from allergy shots (immunotherapy), in which low doses of a bird allergen are injected into a patient over a period of time. With each shot, the patient’s tolerance to the allergen is increased. This usually leads to a reduction of symptoms and/or fewer allergic reactions to bird allergens. However, allergy shots do not work for everyone and may not be appropriate for some patients.

Question for your doctor

Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following questions related to bird allergies:

  1. Do my symptoms indicate an allergy to birds?
  2. What tests will you use to determine if I am allergic to birds?
  3. Is my allergy to birds dangerous? What complications may develop?
  4. Do you recommend that I give away my pet bird?
  5. I am not willing to part with my pet. What steps can I take to reduce my exposure to bird allergens?
  6. Are there drugs available to treat my bird allergy-related symptoms?
  7. Am I a candidate for allergy shots?
  8. Is it safe for me to wear down coats or sleep with feather-based pillows and covers?
  9. Would I benefit from using a HEPA vacuum?
  10. Are my family members at risk for developing bird allergies as well?
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