How Flu Spreads: Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.
Types of Flu: There are four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C and D. Human influenza A and B viruses cause seasonal epidemics of disease almost every winter in the United States. The emergence of a new and very different influenza A virus to infect people can cause an influenza pandemic. Influenza type C infections generally cause a mild respiratory illness and are not thought to cause epidemics. Influenza D viruses primarily affect cattle and are not known to infect or cause illness in people.
Influenza A viruses are divided into subtypes based on two proteins on the surface of the virus: the hemagglutinin (H) and the neuraminidase (N). There are 18 different hemagglutinin subtypes and 11 different neuraminidase subtypes. (H1 through H18 and N1 through N11 respectively.)
Influenza A viruses can be further broken down into different strains. Current subtypes of influenza A viruses found in people are influenza A (H1N1) and influenza A (H3N2) viruses. In the spring of 2009, a new influenza A (H1N1) virus (CDC 2009 H1N1 Flu website) emerged to cause illness in people. This virus was very different from the human influenza A (H1N1) viruses circulating at that time. The new virus caused the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years. That virus (often called “2009 H1N1”) has now replaced the H1N1 virus that was previously circulating in humans.
Influenza B viruses are not divided into subtypes, but can be further broken down into lineages and strains. Currently circulating influenza B viruses belong to one of two lineages: B/Yamagata and B/Victoria.
Naming Influenza Viruses: CDC follows an internationally accepted naming convention for influenza viruses. This convention was accepted by WHO in 1979 and published in February 1980 in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 58(4):585-591 (1980) (see A revision of the system of nomenclature for influenza viruses: a WHO Memorandumpdf icon[854 KB, 7 pages]external icon). The approach uses the following components:
- The antigenic type (e.g., A, B, C)
- The host of origin (e.g., swine, equine, chicken, etc. For human-origin viruses, no host of origin designation is given.)
- Geographical origin (e.g., Denver, Taiwan, etc.)
- Strain number (e.g., 15, 7, etc.)
- Year of isolation (e.g., 57, 2009, etc.)
- For influenza A viruses, the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase antigen description in parentheses (e.g., (H1N1), (H5N1)
- A/duck/Alberta/35/76 (H1N1) for a virus from duck origin
- A/Perth/16/2009 (H3N2) for a virus from human origin
Influenza Vaccine Viruses: Influenza A (H1N1), A (H3N2), and one or two influenza B viruses (depending on the vaccine) are included in each year’s influenza vaccine. Getting a flu vaccine can protect against flu viruses that are the same or related to the viruses in the vaccine. Information about this season’s vaccine can be found at Preventing Seasonal Flu with Vaccination. The seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against influenza C viruses. Additionally, flu vaccines will NOT protect against infection and illness caused by other viruses that also can cause influenza-like symptoms. There are many other non-flu viruses that can result in influenza-like illness (ILI) that spread during flu season.