No Excuses! A Brief Guide to the Flu Shot

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We got our flu shots at TIME Healthland HQ this week, which reminds us to remind you to do the same. A few flu shot basics to follow.

What it is: The seasonal influenza vaccine is formulated to protect against the three strains of flu that public health researchers believe will be the most common during the upcoming season. That calculation is based on flu trends observed in the previous year and usually includes two influenza A subtypes and one influenza B subtype.

The 2011-12 flu vaccine protects against two influenza A strains: H1N1, the infamous “swine flu,” and H3N2, a similar subtype that sickened many last year. The influenza B virus included in the current flu vaccine is the “Brisbane” strain.

Some critics say the flu vaccine isn’t worth getting because it doesn’t guarantee protection if, for instance, you become infected with a strain of flu that isn’t included in the shot. That’s true, but it does protect against the three strains you’re most likely to get and, additionally, it can help make illness from other strains of flu milder.

What’s new this year: This season’s flu vaccine comes in a new package, with a much shorter and finer needle than the standard shot — which should make it more attractive to those with a fear of needles. It also contains fewer antigens than the traditional vaccine. The new vaccine began shipping last month. Reported Alice Park:

While the typical flu vaccine uses a 1-in. to 1.5-in. needle, the new Fluzone Intradermal influenza vaccine comes with an ultrafine needle that’s 90% smaller, at just 0.06 in. Both vaccines contain the same antigens, which help the immune system to protect against the three commonly circulating influenza strains this season.

But because of its formulation, the new vaccine contains 40% less antigen material than the regular flu vaccine. That means the same amount of antigen can be used to make more doses of the intradermal vaccine, a useful feature if a flu-shot shortage were to occur this season.

The standard flu vaccine is still on offer, of course, but the new vaccine should be available wherever the usual injection is. Unfortunately for kids, though, the new shot is approved only for adults aged 18 to 64.

Who should get it: Everyone over 6 months of age should get the flu vaccine, provided they don’t suffer from allergies to eggs, chicken feathers or the preservative thimerosal; also, if you’ve ever had a serious reaction to a flu shot in the past or had Guillain-Barré syndrome, talk to your doctor first.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly urges people at high risk of developing flu complications to get vaccinated, including: children younger than 5 (and especially younger than 2); adults aged 65 or older; pregnant women; the morbidly obese; those with underlying disease, such as asthma, diabetes, neurological problems, lung disease, or chronic conditions affecting the blood, kidney or liver; and those with weakened immune systems.

The CDC also recommends a flu shot for health-care workers and caregivers to small children or the elderly.

For specific info about the nasal-spray flu vaccine, which contains weakened live viruses, see the CDC’s webpage here.

Why getting a flu shot is a good deed: If you’re on the fence about getting inoculated because, let’s face it, you’re a healthy, young person for whom the flu would be more inconvenience than tragedy, here’s another reason to do it: herd immunity. Babies under 6 months, who are very vulnerable to flu complications, are not able to have a vaccination. By protecting yourself, you’ll lower the risk of passing infection on to them.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.