influenza, commonly known as “the flu,” is a virus that affects millions of people in the United States each year. Most people recover after a brief bout of illness. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that between 1999 and 2019, the flu killed 1.8 people per 100,000 people in the United States.
The severity of influenza and its subsequent effects vary from year to year. Older adults, infants under 6 months, pregnant women, and people with certain underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for complications from the flu.
This article provides influenza mortality and discusses influenza warning signs, risk factors, and treatments.
Annual flu deaths
The annual number of flu deaths varies from year to year. From 2010 to 2019, the annual flu death toll was as low as 12,000 and as high as 52,000. Many factors contributed to this change, including:
- Influenza Vaccination Rates
- Seasonal flu vaccine efficacy
- time of flu season
- characteristics of the virus
how it spread
When a person coughs, sneezes or talks, they expel droplets from their body. Influenza spreads when infected droplets land in the nose or mouth of someone who is not sick. It’s also possible to catch the flu by touching an infected surface and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, but it’s much less common.
If you’ve ever been outside so cold that you could see your breathing, this will help you visualize how the flu spreads. It usually appears as a concentrated cloud that moves about 6 feet from your body before dissipating. Droplets are more concentrated closest to the body, and their concentration decreases as they move away.
That’s why the CDC recommends that sick people stay home and avoid contact with others — or stay at least 6 feet apart if necessary — to reduce the risk of transmission.
Causes and Risk Factors of Influenza
Influenza can spread the day before symptoms begin and up to 5-7 days afterward in people with healthy immune systems. It is most contagious during the first 3-4 days after the disease begins.
People with weakened immune systems or young children may spread it longer because their bodies don’t have enough power to fight off the virus.
How long is the flu contagious?
possible person asymptomaticwhich means they don’t have any symptoms at all to spread the flu.
When is the flu deadly?
Although most people recover from the flu in about two weeks or less, complications from the flu can make the flu deadly. Complications of the flu include:
- myocarditis (inflammation of the heart)
- encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
- myositis or Rhabdomyolysis (muscle tissue inflammation)
- multiple organ failure
The flu can also make certain chronic diseases worse, leading to an increased risk of complications and death.
Recognizing the warning signs of the flu will help you know when to seek medical attention. The CDC offers the following warning signs of flu in children and adults:
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Persistent dizziness, confusion, or inability to move
- inability to urinate
- severe muscle pain, weakness, or instability
- Fever or cough gets better and then comes back or gets worse
- Worsening of an existing chronic disease
Younger children may see these additional signs:
- blue lips or face
- Ribs tighten with breathing
- chest pain
Who is at risk?
People most at risk of flu complications include:
- People with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, and diabetes
- pregnant woman
- Adults over 65
Talk to your healthcare provider about any concerns you have about your flu risk and what you can do to protect yourself.
People at high risk of developing dangerous flu complications
Preparing for flu season
Influenza viruses mutate (change) every year. This evolving virus requires a new version of the vaccine every year to fight it.
Getting the flu shot is the most effective way to prepare for flu season.
The benefits of flu vaccination
A 2021 study found that adults who were vaccinated against the flu and were hospitalized with the flu were 26 percent less likely to be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) than adults who were not vaccinated against the flu. The same study reported that people who were vaccinated and hospitalized with flu-related illness were 31 percent less likely to die from flu-related illness than those who were not vaccinated.
Additional steps to help you prepare for flu season include:
- avoid contact with sick people
- If you are sick, stay home
- Wash your hands often and practice good hygiene
- Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing
- Regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
- avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
Influenza can be treated at home with medicines to reduce fever. You can also treat flu symptoms by:
- maintain proper hydration
- Rest more
- Not going to school or working from home for at least 24 hours after the fever has subsided
Healthcare providers may prescribe antiviral drugs for people who are seriously ill or who are at higher risk for complications from the flu. Antiviral drugs are used to stop the virus from replicating itself, thereby reducing the severity and duration of the disease. These drugs can reduce the duration of symptoms by about a day and are most effective when started within one to two days of onset.
Unfortunately, the flu can be deadly, especially for high-risk groups such as the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions. But in most cases, the flu is not fatal. Understanding how the flu virus spreads is the first step in understanding how to protect yourself from the virus. Getting the flu vaccine every year is the best protection. Adding extra precautions, like washing your hands regularly and avoiding people who are sick, will help keep you safe and healthy.
It makes sense to be afraid of getting the flu and wonder what will happen if you do. Discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider, especially if you are in the high-risk category. Fortunately, you now know the main warning signs to look for, and early treatment within the first day or two can treat the flu.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the flu viral or bacterial?
Influenza is a virus. The most common influenza viruses in humans are called “Influenza A” or “Influenza B,” and they usually affect the upper respiratory system.
How deadly is the flu compared to COVID?
During the 2019-2020 flu season, the flu killed about 20,000 people in the United States. By comparison, 375,000 people in the same population died of COVID in 2020.
Will more flu deaths occur each year in winter?
Flu season is between October and April, but usually peaks between December and February. The annual number of flu deaths usually occurs in the winter.
How do you know if you have the flu or coronavirus?
The symptoms of the flu and COVID are very similar. The only way to know if you have the flu or COVID is to get tested.