6 things you didn't know about the flu vaccine

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A good friend of mine told me he had received a flu shot. When I asked him which one, he looked at me with a blank stare and said, "I didn't know there was more than one." If, like my friend, people don't know that there is more than one flu shot, what else don't they know? Here are six facts you might find interesting.

Note: Your health care provider should determine which of these vaccines is best for you; one size does not fit all.

Yes, there is more than one flu shot

Almost everyone 6 months or older, including those
(Credit: AP / Darron Cummings)

Almost everyone 6 months or older, including those who are pregnant, should receive an annual flu shot, because the flu continues to be responsible for thousands of deaths each year. What most people don't realize is that there are actually many different flu shots available. These include the traditional vaccine that contains three types of virus particles, a newer one with four types of virus, a high dose one for the elderly, a live vaccine that works especially well in children and even one for those allergic to eggs.

Scientists take their best guess

The
(Credit: Getty Images)

The "success rates" of these vaccines is far from 100 percent, even when the match between the vaccine and the circulating viruses is a good one. From the CDC website: "During years when the flu vaccine is not well matched to circulating viruses, it’s possible that no benefit from flu vaccination may be observed. During years when there is a good match between the flu vaccine and circulating viruses, it’s possible to measure substantial benefits from vaccination in terms of preventing flu illness."

The standards may change

To hedge their bets, the traditional “flu shot”
(Credit: Ed Betz)

To hedge their bets, the traditional “flu shot” you receive is actually a mixture of three separate components given at once. This increases the chances one of them will protect you during flu season.

Some manufacturers have begun to incorporate four separate components into their vaccines. Obviously, four chances at matching the vaccine with the virus that attacks you are better than three. This will probably become the standard in the future, but manufacturing issues limit its availability.

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As you age, doses get higher

The elderly -- defined by the Centers for
(Credit: Getty Images)

The elderly -- defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as 65 or older -- are especially vulnerable to the flu and they also obtain relatively limited protection from traditional flu vaccines. A vaccine has been designed for elderly patients containing a much higher dose of the vaccine material, which a recent study showed provides better protection for older people.

They are grown in chicken egg cells

Flu vaccines are made from viruses that are
(Credit: AP / Markus Schreiber)

Flu vaccines are made from viruses that are grown in chicken egg cells. There is controversy about the safety of vaccinating people who are allergic to chicken eggs. Some organizations state no special precautions are needed. Others recommend basing the decision on such issues as whether the patient can eat lightly cooked eggs (e.g. scrambled eggs), and whether their reaction consisted only of hives or is more severe. A new vaccine has been developed which does not use chicken egg cells and is safe for patients with this problem.

Most are made with 'dead' virus particles

Almost all flu vaccines use “dead,” (or more
(Credit: AP / Charles Dharapak)

Almost all flu vaccines use “dead,” (or more accurately, “inactivated”) virus particles. They cannot multiply inside of you and can be safely given to pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

There is one vaccine that uses “live” or “active” viruses. It is squirted into the nose. Amazingly, it uses weakened viruses that have been made extremely temperature dependent - they can multiply inside the relatively cooler temperature of the nose, but cannot infect the warmer parts of the body such as the lungs. Children respond especially well and the CDC states this is now the vaccine of choice for healthy children from ages 2 to 8, although they emphasize that if this is not immediately available other vaccines should be used. Since it is a live virus, pregnant women or those with weakened immune systems should not receive this vaccine.

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