Psittacosis - including symptoms, treatment and prevention

Psittacosis (sometimes called ornithosis or parrot disease or parrot fever) is an infection of the lung (pneumonia) caused by the bacterium Chlamydophila (Chlamydia) psittaci. The bacteria causing the disease are carried by wild and domesticated birds and it is likely that all birds are susceptible.

Psittacosis is a notifiable condition1

How psittacosis is spread

Even apparently healthy birds can shed Chlamydophila psittaci. People become infected when they inhale the bacteria from dried nose and eye secretions, droppings or dust from feathers of infected birds. Infection is a risk in:

  • pet shop employees
  • pet owners
  • poultry farm workers
  • abattoir workers
  • veterinarians (vets).

Infection has been transmitted to gardeners spreading chicken manure on gardens. However, about one-quarter of people who get psittacosis have no history of obvious exposure to birds.

Signs and symptoms of psittacosis

Symptoms are very varied, but commonly include:

  • fever
  • cough, usually without much phlegm
  • headache
  • rash
  • muscle aches
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • sore throat
  • swollen lymph glands.

Illness ranges from mild through to severe and is sometimes fatal.

Diagnosis of psittacosis

The diagnosis is suspected based on the clinical presentation, especially if the patient has a history of exposure to birds. The diagnosis is confirmed by a series of blood tests and a chest x-ray.

Incubation period

(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)

From 1 to 4 weeks.

Infectious period

(time during which an infected person can infect others)

Person-to-person spread is unlikely to occur. Apparently healthy as well as diseased birds may shed the bacteria for months. Re-infection of people and birds may occur.

Treatment for psittacosis

Specific and effective antibiotic therapy is available.

Prevention of psittacosis

  • Exclusion from childcare, preschool, school or work is not necessary
  • sick birds should be treated promptly by a veterinarian
  • close contact with birds, especially kissing, should be discouraged
  • clean bird cages regularly, including water and food trays, using gloves and a wet cleaning method to minimise inhalation of bird droppings
  • exclude birds from roof spaces prior to blocking access to the birds
  • tissues used by patients should be disposed of carefully.

Useful links

1 – In South Australia the law requires doctors and laboratories to report some infections or diseases to SA Health. These infections or diseases are commonly referred to as 'notifiable conditions'.