U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Prepare for a Flu Pandemic

The Basics

The Basics: Overview

A flu pandemic is a global outbreak of a new flu virus that spreads easily from person to person.

How is a flu pandemic different from seasonal (regular) flu?
Both types of flu are caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. Unlike the seasonal flu, a flu pandemic is rare. There have only been 4 flu pandemics in the past 100 years – but they were very serious.

In the United States, flu season begins each year in the fall and can last as late as May. Every flu season, a vaccine is made to protect against seasonal flu.

A flu pandemic is caused by a new flu virus that spreads easily and makes many people sick around the world. For example, the 2009 H1N1 virus caused a flu pandemic.

Will the seasonal flu vaccine protect me against a flu pandemic?
The seasonal flu vaccine probably won’t protect against a pandemic flu virus. If a new flu virus starts to spread, a new vaccine may be made to protect people against it.

If there is a flu pandemic, it’s important to get the pandemic vaccine once it’s available. It can take time to make new vaccines to protect people from a pandemic flu virus.

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The Basics: How to Prepare

How can I prepare for a flu pandemic?
The same steps you take every year to protect yourself and others from the seasonal flu can help in case of a pandemic. Follow these basic steps:

  • Get a seasonal flu shot every year. Make sure everyone in your family age 6 months and older also gets a flu shot every year. 
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Stay home from work or school if you are sick with a fever or have other flu symptoms.

It’s also a good idea to prepare for a flu pandemic like you would prepare for any emergency where you might need to stay home for 1 to 2 weeks.

  • Gather supplies, like extra food, water, and medicine.
  • Make an emergency plan for your family.
  • Write down important health information.
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The Basics: Learn More

How serious can a flu pandemic be?
Not all pandemics are the same. Pandemics can range from mild (similar to a regular flu season) to severe (with a lot of sickness and deaths).

A severe flu pandemic means that a lot of people get sick at the same time. This can cause schools, businesses, and community events to shut down in order to slow the spread of illness. Learn more about flu pandemics.

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Take Action!

Take Action: Don't Spread Germs

Take steps to stop the spread of germs and to prepare for a flu pandemic.

Stop the spread of germs.
Take these steps to help stop the spread of germs that can cause the flu and other illnesses:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand rub (hand sanitizer).
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth. This helps keep germs out of your body.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Stay home from work or school if you get sick. Stay home (except to go to the doctor) for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.
  • In the event of a flu pandemic, follow the advice of local officials about school and other closings.
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Take Action: Get the Flu Vaccine

Get a seasonal flu shot (vaccine) every year.
The best way to protect yourself and others from flu is to get a seasonal flu shot every year. Everyone age 6 months and older needs to get a flu shot every year.

Use this flu clinic locator to find out where you can get a flu shot.

A seasonal flu vaccine can help you stay healthy, but it probably won’t protect you against a new pandemic flu virus. In a pandemic, a new vaccine will need to be made – and this may take time.

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Take Action: Emergency Plan

Prepare for an emergency.
Help your family get through an emergency like a flu pandemic by taking these steps to prepare for an emergency now.

Gather supplies.
Print out this emergency supply kit list [PDF - 348 KB] and share it with your family. Start gathering emergency supplies and put them in a safe place. Keep enough water, food, medicine, and other supplies to last 2 weeks.

Make a family emergency plan.
Talk with your family and decide what you will do if there is a severe flu pandemic. For example, what will you do if schools are closed?

Make a list of emergency contact information. Include the phone numbers for your local hospital, doctor, school, and other emergency contacts. Print out this family emergency plan to get started [PDF - 520 KB].

Write down important health information.
Print out this emergency health information sheet [PDF - 29 KB]. Write down the health information for each member of your family. Include information like:

  • Allergies
  • Health conditions
  • Medicines

Be sure to keep this information in a safe place.

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