During flu season in the United States—from October to May—there’s never an exact number of how many people die from the flu every year. The CDC estimated 20,000 flu-related deaths during the 2019–2020 flu season.

The flu is not a reportable disease in most states. Experts develop estimates based on rates of lab-confirmed, flu-associated hospitalizations. Still, only some people who have the flu see a healthcare provider.

An estimated 35 million flu-related illnesses occurred during the 2019–2020 flu season. That included 16 million medical visits and 380,000 hospitalizations. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the United States, flu cases were at an all-time low: The CDC reported 748 flu-related deaths during the 2020–2021 flu season.

Read on to learn how many people die from the flu yearly on average, what infectious disease experts look for to gauge upcoming flu seasons, and how to protect yourself.

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According to data collected by the CDC from 2010–2020, the flu caused about 12,000–52,000 deaths annually. The flu caused nine million to 41 million illnesses and 140,000–710,000 hospitalizations during that time. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 290,000–650,000 flu-related deaths annually.

Those numbers vary widely because “the flu” is not one specific virus. Different flu virus strains that circulate through communities cause illness.

“Sometimes, there are years where there are big genetic shifts, and we can see a very different virus,” Cassandra Pierre, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center, told Health.

Flu viruses may change gradually over time as they infect people and replicate. Other times, there are sudden changes in flu viruses. That typically occurs if a flu virus from animals “jumps” to and infects the human population. For example, a flu virus, H1N1, originated in swine and caused massive human outbreaks.

The dominant strain is constantly changing, and some can be more severe than others.

“[Sometimes], it can be a nastier strain,” Robert L. Murphy, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at the Northwestern Medicine Feinberg School of Medicine, told Health. “It goes up and down.”

The CDC uses factors called intensity threshold (IT) values to determine flu severity.

IT values include:

  • Flu-associated hospitalization rates
  • Outpatient visit percentages for flu-like illnesses
  • Pneumonia or flu death percentages

Information related to those values plays a part in flu forecasting. Other researchers beyond those within the CDC submit data to prepare and take preventative measures.

Preparation and preventative measures may include:

  • Community action guidance (e.g., organization closures)
  • Healthcare provider and treatment distribution and placement
  • Potential hospitalization influxes
  • Vaccinations

The low number of flu cases during the COVID-19 pandemic may have left the United States “relatively immunologically naive,” James H. Conway, MD, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute, told Health.

Lower-than-usual rates of flu cases and vaccinations may have gotten rid of any leftover immunity from the 2019–2020 flu season. Paired with relaxed COVID-19 preventative measures, experts used that information to predict a severe 2022–2023 flu season.

From October 1, 2022, to April 30, 2023, the CDC estimated 27 million to 54 million cases, which may be higher than the 2019–2020 flu season.

Vaccine Preparedness

The number of flu cases and deaths partly depends on “how accurately researchers were able to predict what should go into the flu vaccine and how many people are vaccinated,” Anjali Mahoney, MD, chief medical officer at Venice Family Clinic, told Health.

Data from other countries can help prepare flu vaccines. For example, in 2021, Australia—which has its winter during summertime in the United States—did not have a flu season.

That might have been good news for a less severe season in the United States. Still, a lack of information about the dominant strain spelled trouble for vaccine formulation.

“Usually, when the powers that be are trying to figure out which strains to put in the vaccine, they are basing it on what circulated in the southern hemisphere during summer,” said Dr. Conway. “[Australia] didn’t have any flu season, so the powers that be couldn’t figure out prevalent flu strains.”

The straightforward answer here is to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The CDC advises everyone 6 months and older to get an annual flu vaccine. Vaccination is the first and most essential step to protect against the flu and its complications.

“The only protection people can get is getting vaccinated and being careful about respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Conway.

Certain people are more likely to develop flu complications than others, such as:

  • Adults older than 65
  • Children younger than 5
  • People with chronic illnesses (e.g., asthma, diabetes, and heart disease)
  • Pregnant people

Experts strongly encourage those people to receive a flu vaccine to prevent severe illness. There’s not enough research to support whether a high-dose flu vaccine protects people with heart disease more than the standard option. Consult a healthcare provider about what option is best for you.

Research has found that preventative measures for COVID-19 help protect against the flu, such as:

  • Avoiding crowded places
  • Proper handwashing
  • Social distancing
  • Wearing masks

“Everybody masking during winter months could help a lot with preventing flu deaths,” noted Dr. Conway. “That’s done pretty regularly in some areas of the world. That may be as much a part of our major protection as major vaccines.”

It’s essential to remain vigilant about staying home from work and school when they are ill, added Dr. Conway. 

There’s no exact number of how many people die from the flu every year. Flu severity changes yearly, depending on the severity of the virus. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, proper handwashing and wearing masks helped decrease the number of flu cases and deaths from the previous year. Experts in the United States use data from other countries and previous years to predict flu severity. That data helps prepare vaccines, one of the most effective ways to protect against the flu.

If you have questions or concerns about the flu or the flu vaccine, reach out to a healthcare provider.


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