Influenza reaches peak prevalence in winter, and because the Northern and Southern Hemispheres have winter at different times of the year, there are actually two different flu seasons each year. This is why the World Health Organization (assisted by the National Influenza Centers) makes recommendations for two different vaccine formulations every year; one for the Northern, and one for the Southern Hemisphere.
A long-standing puzzle has been why outbreaks of the flu occur seasonally rather than uniformly throughout the year. One possible explanation is that, because people are indoors more often during the winter, they are in close contact more often, and this promotes transmission from person to person. Increased travel due to the Northern Hemisphere winter holiday season may also play a role. Another factor is that cold temperatures lead to drier air, which may dehydrate mucus, preventing the body from effectively expelling virus particles. The virus also survives longer on surfaces at colder temperatures and aerosol transmission of the virus is highest in cold environments (less than 5 °C) with low relative humidity. Indeed, the lower air humidity in winter seems to be the main cause of seasonal influenza transmission in temperate regions.
However, seasonal changes in infection rates also occur in tropical regions, and in some countries these peaks of infection are seen mainly during the rainy season. Seasonal changes in contact rates from school terms, which are a major factor in other childhood diseases such as measles and pertussis, may also play a role in the flu. A combination of these small seasonal effects may be amplified by dynamical resonance with the endogenous disease cycles.
An alternative hypothesis to explain seasonality in influenza infections is an effect of vitamin D levels on immunity to the virus. This idea was first proposed by Robert Edgar Hope-Simpson in 1965. He proposed that the cause of influenza epidemics during winter may be connected to seasonal fluctuations of vitamin D, which is produced in the skin under the influence of solar (or artificial) UV radiation. This could explain why influenza occurs mostly in winter and during the tropical rainy season, when people stay indoors, away from the sun, and their vitamin D levels fall.
As influenza is caused by a variety of species and strains of viruses, in any given year some strains can die out while others create epidemics, while yet another strain can cause a pandemic. Typically, in a year's normal two flu seasons (one per hemisphere), there are between three and five million cases of severe illness and up to 500,000 deaths worldwide, which by some definitions is a yearly influenza epidemic. Although the incidence of influenza can vary widely between years, approximately 36,000 deaths and more than 200,000 hospitalizations are directly associated with influenza every year in the United States. Roughly three times per century, a pandemic occurs, which infects a large proportion of the world's population and can kill tens of millions of people). Indeed, one study estimated that if a strain with similar virulence to the 1918 influenza emerged today, it could kill between 50 and 80 million people.
New influenza viruses are constantly evolving by mutation or by reassortment. Mutations can cause small changes in the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase antigens on the surface of the virus. This is called antigenic drift, which slowly creates an increasing variety of strains until one evolves that can infect people who are immune to the pre-existing strains. This new variant then replaces the older strains as it rapidly sweeps through the human population—often causing an epidemic. However, since the strains produced by drift will still be reasonably similar to the older strains, some people will still be immune to them. In contrast, when influenza viruses reassort, they acquire completely new antigens—for example by reassortment between avian strains and human strains; this is called antigenic shift. If a human influenza virus is produced that has entirely new antigens, everybody will be susceptible, and the novel influenza will spread uncontrollably, causing a pandemic. In contrast to this model of pandemics based on antigenic drift and shift, an alternative approach has been proposed where the periodic pandemics are produced by interactions of a fixed set of viral strains with a human population with a constantly changing set of immunities to different viral strains.