Flu Season Is Here—How Bad Is It?

The flu can be serious, or even deadly. Learn how to avoid this seasonal misery and prevent flu-related complications.

person home sick on sofa

Medically reviewed in January 2020

The 2019-2020 flu season got off to an early start and is now in full swing. Flu activity is high across the United States and is expected to remain elevated for several more weeks. The ominous beginning of the season, which can drag on until May, has raised concerns about what’s still to come.

As of February 15, 2020, the CDC estimates that up to 41 million people were infected with the flu and as many as 41,000 people died from the virus or related complications.

Young people have been disproportionately affected, the CDC notes. Just over half of all of confirmed flu cases involve children and adults younger than 25-years old. Only 13 percent of confirmed cases involved people older than 65, which has helped keep hospitalization and death rates in check. Health officials estimate that between 280,000 and 500,000 people were admitted to the hospital. The flu prompted another 13 to 19 million people to see their doctor for medical attention.

The CDC warns, however, the flu can still be dangerous—even for otherwise healthy kids. As of February 15—midway through the flu season—the virus already claimed the lives of at least 105 children.

How this year stacks up
Preliminary estimates of the 2019-2020 flu vaccine were reported by the CDC on February 21. This season's vaccines are reducing doctor’s visits for flu illness by 45 percent overall and 55 percent in children. These numbers a consistent with past seasons. But the CDC points out that—even in mid-February—it’s not too late to get vaccinated to protect yourself against the flu and related complications. As of February 14, 171.1 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed, the agency reports.

Early on in 2019, Influenza B/Victoria, caused the most illnesses, which was unusual for that time of year. Since January however, the flu A strain known as H1N1 is now more prevalent, with an increase in cases in recent weeks.

Fewer deaths were reported during the 2018-2019 flu season than in many previous years, but it was the longest in a decade—partly because two types of flu viruses surfaced at different times. The one bright spot was that roughly 63 percent of children and 45 percent of adults got a flu shot—an increase of about 5 percent among kids and a roughly 8 percent jump among adults from the year before.

Moreover, the 2018-2019 seasonal flu vaccine was a good match, offering 47 percent protection against the viruses that were circulating at that time (H1N1 and H3N2). So, those who received the vaccine may have cut their odds of acquiring a case of the flu by nearly half.

This was a significant improvement from the year before. The 2017-2018 flu shot offered 36 percent effectiveness against the flu that season. Complicating matters, fewer people rolled up their sleeves: just 37.1 percent of adults received the vaccine during the 2017-2018 flu season—a 6.2 percent drop from the year before.

Overall, the 2017-2018 flu season was the deadliest in more than 40 years, according to the CDC. From the fall of 2017 to the spring of 2018, it’s estimated that the flu claimed the lives of nearly 61,000 Americans, including at least 643 children. It’s also estimated that more than 808,000 were hospitalized due to the virus that year.

More reasons to get vaccinated
It’s true: sometimes people who get the flu shot are still infected with the virus. This can happen due to a number of factors, including a person’s unique biological characteristics, the flu viruses in circulation (and whether or not the flu vaccine is a close match to these predominant strains) as well as the type of flu vaccine used.

Studies show, however, that getting the flu vaccine can still help reduce the severity of the infection and help prevent flu-related complications. In short, if you get the shot and still do get the flu, it may not be as bad.

And if that’s not enough motivation to get vaccinated, consider this: getting a flu shot will also protect the more vulnerable people around you, including babies, older people, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions.  

If you do get sick
Getting vaccinated against the flu is the best way to avoid infection. But if you do get the virus, there are certain prescription medications, known as antiviral drugs, that could help ease the severity of your symptoms and help you recover more quickly. Antiviral drugs are particularly important for those who are at high risk for serious flu-related complications, such as those with asthma, diabetes or heart disease, the CDC advises.

The agency reports that nearly all flu strains tested during the 2019-2020 flu season are susceptible to the four antiviral drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

See your doctor right away if you’re at high risk for complications and think you may have the flu. You may be prescribed antiviral drugs to treat a flu infection. Keep in mind, these medications are most effective when taken promptly—within two days of developing symptoms, which typically include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough, runny nose and/or congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
Article sources open article sources

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The Flu Season.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2019-2020 Season.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Update: Influenza Activity in the United States During the 2018–19 Season and Composition of the 2019–20 Influenza Vaccine.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Flu Vaccination Coverage, United States, 2018–19 Influenza Season.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Interim Estimates of 2018–19 Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness—United States, February 2019.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Early-Season Flu Vaccination Coverage–United States, November 2018.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Estimates of Influenza Vaccination Coverage among Adults—United States, 2017–18 Flu Season.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States—2017–2018 influenza season.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work?”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When should antiviral drugs be taken for treatment?”

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