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Time to get your flu shot: What you need to know

It’s that time of the year again—time to get your flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging everyone above 6 months of age to get their flu shots now. Last year, about 46 percent of people were vaccinated. But this year, there are several gentler and tailored options—meaning fewer reasons to skip it.

“Flu season begins in October and peaks in January and February, so we feel the quicker people can get vaccinated the better,” said Dr. Michael Jhung, medical officer in the influenza division of the CDC. “We’ve already seen some cases,” he said.  It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.

Pregnant women are strongly urged to get vaccinated because they have an increased risk of hospitalization and death if they get the flu while pregnant. Last season, about 47 percent of pregnant women were vaccinated against the flu.

This year’s vaccination is slightly different from last year’s. It contains three parts. Like last years, it contains one part that protects against H1N1, formerly known as swine flu. But the two other components, which  protect against H3N2 and influenza B viruses, are slightly tweaked.  

If you’re afraid of needles, you can seek out the intradermal shot, which uses a thinner and shorter needle that only penetrates your skin and does not go into the muscle.  “You can barely feel it,” said Jhung. It’s about 10 percent the size of a regular needle, which probes deeper into your muscles. The intradermal shots don’t contain the preservative thimerasol either, but they do have a slightly higher risk of local reactions like redness and itching on your arm. Also, it’s only available for those between the ages of 18 and 64.

Another gentler option for those aged 2 to 49 is the nasal-spray flu vaccine. It’s made with live, weakened flu viruses, rather than the dead viruses used in the shots.  The viruses in the nasal spray vaccine do not cause the flu, but it is only recommended for healthy people, and not recommended for pregnant women.

Those older than 65 may want to talk to their doctors about getting the high potency shot, which became available last year. “Older individuals have a decline in their immune response,” said Jhung. They may need a stronger dose to stimulate their immune systems into action. The CDC does not necessarily recommend it, but those older than 65 should discuss the option with their physician. It does not come with any increased risks.  

Getting a flu shot doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t get the flu. The shot is only about 60 percent effective in preventing the flu. 

That’s because there may be a slight mismatch in what the shot protects against and the virus that is circulating. Also, some people may be exposed to the virus right after getting the shot, before their immunity kicked in, or in some people, like older individuals, their immune systems did not have a strong enough response to the vaccination.

“The flu shot is by far the best way to protect against influenza,” said Jhung. Plus, if you have been vaccinated and do still get the flu, your symptoms will likely be milder. The chances of having serious complications that land people in the hospital are smaller if they’ve been vaccinated.

Flu shots are available through doctor’s offices, local health clinics and many drugstores and even big box stores like Walgreens and Target.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.