Complications of a Bird Respiratory System

Chicken Respiratory Infection Medication, Anatomy, and Complications

Complications of a Bird Respiratory System

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The bird respiratory system is quite different than most animals. Chickens are no exception. It’s one of the reasons chicken keepers become concerned when their chickens show signs of have respiratory issues — like sneezing, wheezing, and coughing. There are too many things that can go wrong with such a delicate respiratory system. You’ll understand why in just a second.

Chickens don’t just have a windpipe and a set of lungs like humans do. Surprisingly, the lungs in a chicken only take up about 2% of their total body volume. Chickens and other birds have two sets of air sacs in their body—a front set and a back set. These air sacs are separate from the lungs. More interestingly, the air in a chicken’s lungs flows much differently than that of a human.

When air is taken in through the mouth or nasal passages of a chicken, it enters into the rear air sacs. Next, as the chicken exhales, that same air moves into the lungs. When it inhales the second time, the air in the lungs moves into the front air sacs, while the second puff of air enters into the rear air sacs and lungs. When a chicken exhales a second time, the air from the front air sacs is exhaled out completely, and more air is taken into the rear air sacs. This means that there is constant airflow in a chicken’s respiratory system at all times.

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So, how do birds breathe? In short, it takes two breaths to process all of the air that is taken in during one inhalation through chambers of air sacs and a set of bird lungs. Pretty neat, huh?

Because the air is constantly moving through a chicken’s respiratory system, it means that they are always taking in dust, allergens, bacteria, and viruses. Most of the time this doesn’t affect chickens adversely. But respiratory infections in chickens aren’t completely uncommon either, for this very reason. More breathing and air sacs mean more things can go wrong. The chicken respiratory tract is so much more fragile because it has multiple moving parts.


When chicken respiratory infections arise, make sure you know the tell-tale sick chicken symptoms in advance. This will hopefully help you notice a sick bird before they are too ill for you to offer respiratory infection medication or herbal remedies. A pale face and comb, droopy wings, and respiratory symptoms will alert you quickly.

Don’t worry about the usual sneeze coming from your chicken. It’s when your chicken begins to wheeze, have a wet or runny respiratory system, or seems sick, that you should be concerned.

While respiratory disease in chickens can happen, remember that chickens will sneeze and cough because of simple dust and things floating in the air. Don’t worry too much about the usual sneeze or sound coming from your chicken. It’s when your chicken begins to wheeze, have a wet or runny respiratory system, or seems sick, that you should become more concerned.

Here are a few examples of different types of common respiratory issues in chickens.

Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG)

Just like bacterias that are constantly around our human environment that we breathe in, MG is constantly hanging out around most chicken environments. It doesn’t become an issue until chickens become stressed or their environment becomes an exceptionally insane breeding ground for MG (like being constantly wet). Symptoms are wheezing, coughing, facial swelling and excessive sneezing, droopy feathers, bubbles in the corners of the eyes, runny nose, and more. Sometimes your chickens can have a foul smell around their head as well.

MG is hard to cure (in fact, some argue it’s impossible), but it’s possible to keep MG bacteria levels lowered with herbal remedies or antibiotic treatment each month.

Infectious Bronchitis

Unlike MG, infectious bronchitis in chickens attacks the bird respiratory system through a viral infection. It is an RNA virus, specifically from the coronavirus family. It affects the upper respiratory tract of the chicken, as well as the reproductive tract. It can cause a significant drop in egg-laying, cause crinkly looking eggs, or stop laying altogether. It can also cause kidney inflammation.

This chicken respiratory issue is more common in chicks but can happen at any age. Symptoms are sneezing, wheezing, coughing, rattling respiratory system, and sometimes facial swelling. Though, facial swelling can happen with any respiratory issue in chickens because of their delicate airways.

There is no known cure for infectious bronchitis in chickens.


This has to be one of the worst sounding bird respiratory issues I’ve ever heard. Actually, it’s not an issue with the respiratory system at all — instead, it’s a worm that lives in the respiratory system. Gape worms aren’t a virus or bacteria. Instead, they are actual worms that affect the chicken’s respiratory system — more specifically, the trachea and lungs.

When a chicken directly ingests gapeworm eggs or larvae — or indirectly ingests through a worm or snail — the larvae then pass through the intestinal wall of the chicken and set up their permanent home in the lungs. Once mature, they move to the trachea of the chicken’s respiratory system. Sounds fun, right? Not really.

Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, gasping for air, gurgling noises, fast head shaking (trying to clear the throat), grunting, and difficulty breathing. Along with the other typical sick chicken symptoms, this chicken issue is not a fun one for the chicken, by any means.

Dewormers or Flubenvet 1% is a common treatment for gapeworms.


A sneezing, coughing, or wheezing chicken treatment is different for each and every case. For some respiratory issues, there is no known treatment. For others, you can choose to give your birds an antibiotic, a de-wormer (like in the case of tapeworm), or another chemical or herbal remedy. Make sure you do your research or contact a local expert before making the decision on treatment.

While the chicken’s respiratory tract is extremely fragile, it is mostly just sensitive. Rest assure that nine times out of ten, your chicken just has some dust, feed, or dirt up its nose or in its airways. And boy, are those airways complicated! You’ll be able to tell, fairly quickly, the difference between normal and abnormal if an issue arises.

It’s good to keep some medicines and preventatives on hand, though. So make sure you’re giving your chickens a healthy diet, herbal preventatives like thyme, stinging nettle, and oregano. And it’s always good practice to keep a chicken first aid kit on hand for crazy times that may arise.

Happy chicken keeping!

Originally published in the Backyard Poultry Special Subscriber 2020 issue  Comb to Tail Health  and regularly vetted for accuracy.

3 thoughts on “Complications of a Bird Respiratory System”
  1. Hi! Great article, extremely timely and useful to me. I will be raising chickens (layers) for the first time in the coming spring. But, I have a tangentially related question: I find the deep litter method appealing for several reasons but my biggest hesitation about going that route (when I get my coop up and running) centers on this issue of respiratory wellness. It just doesn’t seem logical that keeping chicken waste in the coop–even though covered diligently with clean straw, hay… is safe enough that it doesn’t facilitate respiratory illness. Your thoughts?

    1. Hi Deb, great question! The deep litter method should only be used in coops with excellent ventilation. Many coops have gaps beneath the eaves just for this: moisture and ammonia rise up and leave the coop, but the gaps are high enough that they don’t make the coop drafty for the chickens. If you feel your coop doesn’t have the best ventilation, then I recommend adding deep straw and changing it out regularly.

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