Key Facts About Influenza (Flu)
What is Influenza (Flu)?
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year.
Influenza (flu) can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Flu symptoms usually come on suddenly. People who have flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:
- fever* or feeling feverish/chills
- sore throat
- runny or stuffy nose
- muscle or body aches
- fatigue (tiredness)
- some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
*It’s important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.
More information is available at Flu and COVID-19 symptoms.
How Flu Spreads
Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.
How Many People Get Sick with Flu Every Year?
A 2018 CDC study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases looked at the percentage of the U.S. population who got sick with flu using two different methods and compared the findings. Both methods had similar findings, which suggested that on average, about 8 percent of the U.S. population gets sick from flu each season, with a range of between 3 percent and 11 percent, depending on the season.
Who is most likely to get sick with flu?
The same CID study found that children are most likely to get sick from flu and that people 65 and older are least likely to get sick from flu. Median incidence values (or attack rate) by age group were 9.3% for children 0-17 years, 8.8% for adults 18-64 years, and 3.9% for adults 65 years and older. This means that children younger than 18 are more than twice as likely to develop a symptomatic flu virus infection than adults 65 and older.
How is seasonal incidence of flu estimated?
Flu virus infection is very common, and the number of people infected each season can only be estimated because not everyone will seek medical care or get tested. Statistical estimations are based on CDC-measured flu hospitalization rates that are adjusted to estimate the total number of flu virus infections in the United States for a given flu season.
The estimates for the number of flu virus infections are then divided by the census population to estimate how common flu virus infections are in the population (called seasonal incidence or attack rate).
Does seasonal incidence of flu change based on the severity of flu season?
Yes. The proportion of people who get sick from flu varies. A paper published in CID found that between 3 percent and 11 percent of the U.S. population gets infected and develops flu symptoms each year. The 3 percent estimate is from the 2011-2012 season, which was an H1N1-predominant season classified as being of low severity. The estimated incidence of flu illness during two seasons was around 11 percent; 2012-2013 was an H3N2-predominant season classified as being of moderate severity, while 2014-2015 was an H3N2 predominant season classified as being of high severity.
|Season||Predominant Virus(es)||Season Severity||Incidence, %, by Age Group|
|0-4 yrs||5-17 yrs||18-49 yrs||50-64 yrs||≥65 yrs|
* The burden estimate for the 2020-2021 season was not calculated due to the uncharacteristically low level of influenza activity that season.
Period of Contagiousness
You may be able to spread flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as when you are sick with symptoms.
- People with flu are most contagious in the first 3-4 days after their illness begins.
- Some otherwise healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick.
- Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time.
Onset of Symptoms
The time from when a person is exposed and infected with flu to when symptoms begin is about two days, but can range from about one to four days.
Complications of Flu
Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
People at Higher Risk from Flu
Anyone can get flu (even healthy people), and serious problems related to flu can happen at any age, but some people are at higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. This includes people 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant people, and children younger than 5 years.
Preventing Seasonal Flu
The first and most important step in preventing flu is to get a flu vaccine each year. Flu vaccine has been shown to reduce flu related illnesses and the risk of serious flu complications that can result in hospitalization or even death. CDC also recommends everyday preventive actions (like staying away from people who are sick, covering coughs and sneezes, and frequent handwashing) to help slow the spread of germs that cause respiratory (nose, throat, and lungs) illnesses, like flu.
It is very difficult to distinguish flu from other viral or bacterial respiratory illnesses based on symptoms alone. There are tests available to diagnose flu. More information is available: Diagnosing Flu.
There are flu antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness.
More information is available: “Seasonal Influenza, More Information.”