How Many People Actually Die from the Flu Each Year

How Many People Die of Flu

Woman blowing her nose.<p>iStock</p>
Woman blowing her nose.


With so much focus on COVID-19 over the past few years, many of us haven't worried quite as much about the flu. But the flu—medically known as influenza—is still a threat, even though statistically, the flu infection rate has declined. Even still, flu season spans from October to May and historically, it has infected millions of Americans each year, so it's still important to stay informed and protected.

Parade consulted Dr. Phil Mitchell, MD, Chief Medical Officer at DispatchHealth to understand more about the severity of the flu.

"The bottom line is that the flu can be severe," Dr. Mitchell says. "Vaccination is essential, particularly with COVID-19 and its variants because they present very similar [to the flu]."

Long story short: Doctors do not want you to forget about the flu. Keep reading for more information on the flu—what it is, and how many people die from it annually.

What Is the Flu?



We've all heard of the flu and "flu season" and largely, this type of seasonal infection is treated much like a regular cold. But that's not entirely accurate, Dr. Mitchell explains. While a cold is simply a sinus infection, the symptoms and ramifications associated with the flu can be more critical.

"While cold and flu often get lumped together, they are very different," Dr. Mitchell explains. "Flu is a severe viral infection within the respiratory system that kills tens of thousands of people each year. Often, flu-related deaths aren't the direct result of the infection but rather a series of reactions set off by the virus."

Robin Squellati, BSN, faculty member in Walden University's Master of Science in Nursing program, explains that vaccination rates are crucial to fighting the flu as well as coronavirus.

"The influenza virus has two main types: A and B," Dr. Squellati says. "The flu can cause death, especially to people with a compromised immune system. As the vaccination rate increases for COVID-19, that percentage will probably decrease. About 3 to 11 percent of Americans get the flu each year. The symptoms and transmission are similar to COVID-19."

Similar to COVID, people who have pre-existing medical conditions are undoubtedly more susceptible to the flu.

"It can worsen existing medical issues or open the door for things like pneumonia or sepsis. Just like we see with the COVID-19 virus, the flu virus causes our immune systems to jump into action and launch an attack on the viral invaders," Dr. Mitchell says.

Dr. Mitchell adds, "For example, fever is the body's way of killing off the virus with heat. But sometimes, the body can overreact, and that's when we see things like sepsis or organ failure. Or the process of fighting off a viral infection can weaken our body's ability to fight off bacterial infections like pneumonia or strep."

How Many People Die From the Flu Each Year?

Girl with the flu.<p>iStock</p>
Girl with the flu.


While most people get over the common cold, the flu claims significantly more lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu is responsible for anywhere from 12,000 to 52,000 deaths annually in the United States. However, since not all cases of the flu are always reported, that number could be even higher.

"Each year, there is variance in the number of people who contract the flu. The numbers are estimates because not all cases of the flu are reported," Dr. Squellati explains.

Most years, the flu causes anywhere from 12,000 to 52,000 deaths. However, last year—at the height of the coronavirus pandemic—numbers dropped a bit.

"In the 2019-2020 season, there were 38 million people who contracted the flu, 18 million visits to a health care provider for the flu, 400,000 hospitalizations for the flu and 22,000 flu-related deaths," Dr. Squellati says, adding that, "The rate is very low at only about 0.1 percent. For comparison, the rate of people dying from contracting COVID-19 is 3.1 percent."

The previous 2018-2019 season saw 35.5 million infected people, 16.5 million people who visited a healthcare provider for the flu, 490,600 hospitalizations and 34,200 deaths, according to Dr. Squellati.

Dr. Squellati adds, "Hundreds of those deaths were children."

How Many People Died from the Flu In Recent Years?

Numbers dropped significantly during the 2020-2021 flu season. In part, this decline has to do with coronavirus-related mask mandates, rates of vaccinations, and of course, an overall push for social distancing.

"The flu rate was extremely low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1,675 (0.2 percent) of 818,939 respiratory specimens tested by U.S. clinical laboratories were positive for an influenza virus," Dr. Squellati says. "The numbers were probably so low due to wearing masks, staying home more, social distancing, school closures, and other COVID-19 prevention strategies."

Dr. Mitchell adds, "Droplets spread viruses like the flu, COVID-19, or things like RSV in the air. The steps we took to avoid the spread of COVID-19 with masks, social distancing, good hand hygiene is universal prevention for all respiratory viruses."

In addition to a rise in availability in COVID vaccines, many people also sought flu vaccines during the 2020-2021 flu season.

"Another major deterrent was that there were 194 to 198 million flu vaccines produced and at least 193 million given," Dr. Squellati adds."The previous year, there were only 175 million doses produced. In 2020-2021, Americans received the flu vaccine earlier and were fully immunized by February, which is the month when the most cases of flu usually occur."

Tips for Protecting Yourself From the Flu

Here are some doctor-approved tips for protecting yourself (and others!) from the flu:

  • Get the flu shot. This is especially important for children under five. According to Dr. Mitchell, other high-risk groups include kids under two, pregnant women, and adults over 65, as well as anyone who is immune-compromised. Additionally, the CDC recommends anyone 6 months and up should get a flu vaccine.

  • Wash your hands frequently

  • Avoid contact with sick people

  • Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze.

And if you do come down with the flu, make sure to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

"Seeking early treatment is the key to keeping symptoms manageable," Dr. Mitchell says. "If you can be diagnosed with Flu in the first 48 hours, you may be able to shorten the duration of your symptoms by taking one of the anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu, Relenza, or one of the other prescription medications."

Next up, exactly where to get your flu shot this year.