You're not afraid of a shot, are you? Trypanophobia, the fear of needles, affects approximately 10 percent of Americans, but it's no excuse to skip the influenza vaccine. Learn about the history of the flu shot, find out about recent breakthroughs in technology, and discover the immunization option that will make you feel safe and protect your health all year long.

A shot heard around the world

Did you ever wonder how the flu vaccine was invented in the first place? After all, who would be crazy enough to infect themselves with a disease on purpose? The answer lies in the United States military.

When the 1918 flu pandemic (also known as the Spanish flu) spread throughout the world, more than 50 million people died. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, and researchers were desperate for a cure--or even better, a prevention. Doctors tried blood transfusions and noticed that when sick patients were given blood from recovered patients, they often got well again.

Several years later, the U.S. military used this information to develop the first influenza vaccine created for wide distribution. World War II veterans were the first to try it, and after the success of the program, the flu shot was developed for the general population.

Injection vs. nasal spray

Every year, researchers create vaccines with the three virus strains expected to affect the U.S. during the upcoming winter. There are two types of influenza vaccine:

  • Inactivated (killed) vaccine, the flu shot, is given by injection with a needle.
  • Live, attenuated (weakened) influenza vaccine (LAIV) is sprayed into the nostrils.

According to the CDC, LAIV is recommended for healthy people ages 2 through 49 who do not have certain health conditions. LAIV is not recommended for everyone. The following people should get the inactivated vaccine (flu shot) instead:

  • Adults 50 years and older or children younger than 2. (Children younger than 6 months should not get either type of vaccine.)
  • Children younger than 5 with asthma or one or more episodes of wheezing within the past year.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People who have long-term health problems such as heart disease, kidney or liver disease, lung disease, metabolic disease (such as diabetes), asthma, anemia, and other blood disorders.
  • Anyone with certain muscle or nerve disorders (such as seizure disorders or cerebral palsy) that can lead to breathing or swallowing problems.
  • Anyone with a weakened immune system.
  • Anyone in close contact with someone whose immune system is so weak they require care in a protected environment (such as a bone marrow transplant unit).
  • Children or adolescents on long-term aspirin treatment.

Remember, influenza viruses are always changing, so you need a new vaccination every year. It takes up to two weeks for protection to start after the shot, but it lasts about a year.

Needling questions

If the nasal spray option isn't for you and you're not a fan of needles, take heart. There's a new, tiny needle available for flu shots. Now, when the health care provider says, "you won't feel a thing" he or she might be right. The ultrafine needle is so small it's hard to see. It also requires less antigen, which means more shots and a reduced risk of shortages.

Unlike the longer-needled version, which is injected into the muscle, the smaller, intradermal flu vaccine is injected into the skin. But it works the same way, and provides the same results. Bad news for kids: this type of shot, which was licensed for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in May 2011, is only approved for adults aged 18 to 64 so far.

Sanofi-Pasteur, which makes both types of shots, says the intradermal vaccine should be available wherever flu shots are given—at doctors' offices and retail pharmacies around the nation. However, supplies may be limited, so it's wise not to wait.

What about the future?

It looked so cool on "Star Trek": that needle-free "hypospray" that made a hissing sound when delivered. But it's not just sci-fi. Developed in 1960, an air gun (also called a jet injector) is a fast, efficient way to deliver vaccines. Powered by compressed air, it uses a high-pressure, narrow jet of injection liquid to penetrate the skin. They were widely used for several decades, but were discontinued for mass vaccinations about five years ago because of possible health risks.

There have been other breakthroughs that show great promise when it comes to the fight against the flu. For example, researchers in Japan have announced a discovery that may lead to the development of a universal flu vaccine. That means it would provide protection against illness from the influenza virus--no matter which strain is active during a given flu season. But since this vaccination has only been tested on animals, a version for humans is still years away.

No matter what form your vaccination takes, don't delay--get your dose today.