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U.S. Flu Season Winding Down, but Cold Season Still Strong

U.S. Flu Season Winding Down, but Cold Season Still Strong
by James Bird

Story Highlights

  • Daily flu reports dropped to 3.0% in February from 3.9% in January
  • Flu averages typical for February
  • An average of 11.2% per day reported having a cold in February

NEW YORK -- The worst of the 2015-2016 flu season appears to be over. On average, 3.0% of U.S. adults reported having the flu the day before they were interviewed throughout February, a noticeable drop from 3.9% in January. Considering the typical seasonal pattern, the incidence of flu will likely decline in March and remain lower throughout the spring and summer.

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This flu season's peak month was January, with an average of 3.9% reporting being sick with the flu on any given day that month. This is similar to last season's peak of 4.0% in December 2014. This season's peak month was milder than the 2012-2013 season's peak of 4.7% in January 2013, the all-time high recorded in any month since Gallup and Healthways began tracking flu daily in 2008. But it was slightly more severe than peak flu months from 2008 through 2012.

The 2015-2016 flu season seems to be following the typical seasonal pattern in which flu reports begin to rise in October and November, peak in December, January, or February, and decline in the spring and summer months. The only major exception to this pattern was when flu reports peaked in October 2009, amid the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index asks 500 Americans each day whether they had a cold or the flu "yesterday." It is possible that this measure of daily cold and flu prevalence underestimates the true rate because those who were sick the day before may be less likely to respond to a phone survey than those who were not sick. It also can be difficult for people to determine whether they are sick with the flu or a cold because the symptoms are often similar. Still, year-on-year comparisons using the same measure provide useful information about the relative prevalence of these illnesses among the U.S. population.

Cold Reports in February Among Highest Since 2008

As is typical, a much higher percentage of Americans reported being sick with a cold than with the flu in February. The 11.2% reporting being sick with a cold on any given day in February is second only to the 11.9% found in January 2015 as the highest Gallup and Healthways have recorded since tracking began in 2008.

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The average percentage saying they had a cold on any given day in February also slightly exceeds the 11.0% found the month prior -- the first time since 2012 that February has eclipsed January of the same year in reports of colds. In years when February reports have topped January reports, the following March reports have decreased steeply. Given this pattern, it is likely that the cold season has passed for 2016.

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Bottom Line

Americans' self-reports of being sick with the flu in February decreased from January, likely signaling the end of the flu season. However, the percentage reporting being sick with a cold increased from January, something not seen since 2012, indicating that the cold season has lasted a bit longer than usual. But given the usual pattern, albeit a limited one, average daily reports of colds are likely to drop precipitously in March.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 1-29, 2016, as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey, with a random sample of 14,169 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±0.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Learn more about how the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index works.


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