Identifying and Treating Respiratory Infection in Chickens

Knowing the Difference Between a Chicken Sneezing and a Dangerous Disease

Identifying and Treating Respiratory Infection in Chickens

Respiratory infection in chickens is a serious concern, but many new flock owners tend to jump to conclusions every time a chicken sneezes. Keeping your birds healthy should be something you take seriously but knowing the difference between an errant sneeze and an acute onset of a respiratory infection in chickens will ease the nerves a bit.

Sneezing vs. Sick

Chickens sneeze on occasion, just like us. It’s when they show other sick chicken symptoms in conjunction with persistent sneezing that we need to be concerned. Listlessness, lethargy, diarrhea, noisy breathing, cyanosis, and abnormal behaviors should be cause for concern.

Respiratory Infections in Chickens

There are many different respiratory (breathing) specific diseases to poultry, and not all of them respond to the same medications. It’s easy for a layperson to incorrectly diagnose them, so if you see sick birds in your flock, seek the professional opinion of a veterinarian, preferably an avian vet, or even better; a poultry vet. That being said, it still doesn’t hurt to know the common signs specific to respiratory infections in chickens so you can detect illness earlier rather than later.


Rales, also known as crackles, refer to the sound of poor breathing. There are many different sounds, but rales in chickens are usually quite noticeable if you listen for them. Fluids in the chicken’s respiratory system cause a crackling sound as they breathe. This crackling is the sound of little air bubbles popping as they move air. Rales is a common sign of respiratory infections in chickens.


Gasping usually accompanies rales, but not always. Gasping is a noticeable behavior because chickens typically stretch their neck and crane their head up to straighten their upper airway. Chickens do this while trying to open their trachea so they can breath better. Gasping is a severe symptom and usually indicates an advanced respiratory infection in chickens or a mechanical airway obstruction. Some people refer to gasping as “pump handle breathing” because of the dramatic motion they make.


Nasal and eye discharge are common in birds that are suffering from a respiratory infection. Usually, a clear bubbling fluid can be seen near the corners of the eyes, or an oozing fluid will flow from the nares (nostrils).


Facial swelling is also a common symptom of respiratory infections in chickens. Look for swelling of the face, around the eyes, and sometimes even the wattles can be affected. Swollen heads in a flock of chickens can be a symptom of many different diseases, so take into account the other signs you’re observing to give you a better idea of which disease your bird(s) may have.

The face, comb, and wattles are vascular (full of blood vessels). A bird showing cyanosis will have a blue or purple color to these areas.


Cyanosis is a bluish or purple coloring of the skin. The face, comb, and wattles are vascular (they have a lot of little veins), so the condition of these surfaces give us an excellent gauge of how a chicken is circulating (moving blood) or saturating (absorbing oxygen). If a chicken is not saturating well, these surfaces turn blue.

This sign is not exclusive to respiratory infections in chickens, because a cardiac deficiency can cause the same symptom. Just like facial swelling, you need to consider the combination of symptoms before making any conclusions. A bird displaying this sort of sign is experiencing hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the tissues of the body). Hypoxia in chickens can be expected to cause altered behavior and lethargy.


Swelling and irritation of the tissue around the eye, known as conjunctivitis, is a relatively easy symptom to see (pun intended). Birds affected by advanced conjunctivitis usually can’t see out the affected eye. Sometimes conjunctivitis swelling makes the eye of a bird looked dished, almost as if it had lost an eye. Don’t confuse conjunctivitis with facial swelling, as conjunctivitis on its own only causes the area immediately around the eye to swell, not the entire face.

Head Shaking

Head shaking can be seen in many respiratory infections in chickens. This behavior is an attempt to clear their airway, usually because there is a mucous or other fluid clogging it up. Usually accompanied by coughing and rales, head shaking can also result in blood spatter on the walls of your coop. Blood spatter from birds shaking their head is a hallmark of infectious laryngotracheitis.

High and Low

Many of these respiratory infections in chickens present in one of two ways; highly pathogenic and low pathogenic, or high-path and low-path for short. Low-path diseases are usually a subacute (recent, but gradual onset), chronic (long-standing symptoms), or even asymptomatic (they show no or very little sign of illness). Even the dreaded and newsworthy avian influenza can infect a flock without showing any apparent signs of disease in its low-path state.

High-path infections are characterized by an acute (sudden) onset of severe symptoms. Acute infections usually hit hard and fast, where one day the flock seems perfectly healthy and the next, sudden major illness is evident. Keeping with my avian influenza example, high-path avian influenza hits hard and starts killing birds within hours, which is why it makes the news.

You know what the regular appearance and behaviors of your flock are. When you see a change in either, you should take note of it.

Call a Vet

At one time, it was common practice for flock owners to self-medicate their flocks. Today the sale, and more specifically, the use of commercially available medications for poultry are more controlled. The Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) from the FDA requires that flock owners seek a prescription from a veterinarian before administering anything beyond your usual coccidiostat (medicated chick starter) or anti-parasite medications. The main reason the VFD came to be is that people have been misusing medications, and causing medically resistant diseases to form. Just like the improper use of antibiotics created the aggressive MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections we see in humans now, improper medicine use in livestock has created harmful pathogens we can’t treat with our usual medications.

Treating Respiratory Infections in Chickens

Antibiotics Don’t Fix Everything

Many people misguidedly think that antibiotics cure everything. Unfortunately, they don’t. Antibiotics work to combat bacterial infections, and not all antibiotics fix all bacterial infections. More importantly; antibiotics are useless against viruses. As an emergency medical technician, I find that many people don’t understand this principle. The human flu cannot be resolved with antibiotics, because it’s a virus. The same goes for avian viruses.

Now You Know

As a flock owner, observation is a critical tool in keeping your birds healthy. You know what normal looks like because you see your chickens every day. Whenever you see something change, such as one of the symptoms we just covered, it’s time to pay attention and ask why.

Find Help

Always seek the advice of a local veterinarian, your state veterinarian, or your state extension service’s poultry agent. These people can guide you with the proper diagnosis and treatment recommendations for respiratory infection in chickens. If you don’t know where to turn with poultry health questions, you can always call the USDA’s veterinary services hotline at 1-866-536-7593 for help.

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