If suffering from inflation was like the flu, some 15 million Americans would be in the hospital with it, 75 million would be home in bed and 30 million would be taking their temperatures every day, afraid they are about to come down with it.

What is worse, most of those in the hospital and many of those in bed would be thinking they aren't ever going to recover.

That inflation is widespread may not be surprisisng. It hasn't exactly been kept secret. Some economists have argued, however, that the average American has been able to keep up with inflation and that only small groups in the population have been hurt by it.

That is directly not the perception that most Americans have. According to the findings of a recent Washington Post poll, more than 60 percent of those interviewed said they have had to make at least some sacrifices in the way they live because of inflation.If that figure were applied to the entire population, then 90 million people have felt the pinch.

A total of 10 percent said they have had to make severe sacrifices in the way they live because of inflation. Only 8 percent described themselves as inflation-proof.

Furthermore, the poll, conducted in January, suggests that large numbers of people are becoming increasingly fearful about the future. In a November Washington Post poll, 29 percent of those interviewed volunteered that one of their great fears for the future, both for themselves and the nation, is a troubled economy. Financial problems ranked on a level with fear of war as the public's two main worries, far ahead of all other concerns.

At that time, 24 percent said they felt they would be worse off financially in a year's time, but 49 percent said they felt they would be better off. In the January poll, there was a sharp shift toward pessimism: 36 percent said they felt they would be worse off in a year's time and 39 percent said they felt their finances would improve.

"I fear our children will not have a future because the cost of living is going up so high," said a 50-year-old westerner who is a foreman at a natural gas facility. "There should be a freeze on everything in order for people to breathe a little while longer."

The pinch of inflation is distributed among all groups in all parts of the country, but clearly by some much more than others. Those with annual incomes of less than $12,000 are the worst hit, according to the poll.

Other groups hurt more than the population at large include farmers and those living in rural areas in general, people in the Northeast, married people in the key child-rearing ages of 30 and 49, retirees and white-collar workers.