Could a Flu Patch Bring an End to Flu Shots?

If you hate getting flu shots because you don't like needles, you could soon be in luck. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University have developed a flu patch that appears to be as effective as the traditional flu vaccine injection. Although it is still in the trial phase, completed studies are promising and the transdermal vaccine seems to be on its way to U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

How It Works

The flu patch is a self-adhesive patch that contains 100 water-soluble microneedles that dissolve into the skin to deliver the seasonal influenza vaccine. The needles dissolve within minutes of the bandage-size patch being applied to the skin. The patch can then be removed and discarded with regular trash (no need for a sharps container).

Another significant benefit of the flu patch is that is could be delivered in the mail and self-administered. It requires no special training to put on and does not require refrigeration. This would eliminate the need for most people to go to a doctor's office or pharmacy to get a flu vaccine each season, which developers and public health officials hope would significantly increase flu vaccination rates.

As of early 2020, the transdermal influenza patch vaccine is still in the trial phase and is not yet available to the general public.

Effectiveness

Research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), published in The Lancet, found the flu patch to be as safe as the flu injection.

The study enrolled 100 adult participants that were divided into four random groups:

  • Received the flu patch administered by a healthcare provider
  • Self-administered the flu patch
  • Received the traditional flu vaccine administered by a healthcare provider
  • Received a placebo microneedle patch administered by a healthcare provider

Immune responses measured through blood samples were essentially the same in the groups receiving the flu patch both soon after administration and six months later. Study results are very promising.

In the next step toward FDA approval, a 2019 clinical trial of the transdermal flu patch measured its effectiveness in delivering the vaccine in 100 volunteers. Researchers measured influenza antigens in blood titers and found the patch is as effective as injections.

Larger scale studies are still needed before this technology will be available to the general public, but researchers are hopeful that it will continue to prove safe and effective. They also hope that the patch technology could be used to administer other types of vaccines as well.

Side Effects

According the aforementioned NIH study, side effects in all groups were minimal. The most common reactions to the flu patch occurred at the administration site and were similar to those of an injection:

  • Tenderness
  • Redness
  • Itching

Current Flu Vaccination Options

Waiting to see if the flu patch becomes available before getting vaccinated is not advised.

There are multiple types of traditionally injected vaccines, including high-dose flu vaccines for older adults, the quadrivalent flu vaccine (which contains four strains of influenza instead of three), and cell-based flu vaccines (which are safe for those with egg allergies, as they are not grown in eggs).

But aside from those, there are non-traditional options you can also consider:

  • FluMist: A nasal mist that delivers the vaccine
  • Intradermal flu shot, which is administered through a tiny needle that only penetrates the skin instead of the muscle, which you will likely find less painful
  • Afluria Quadrivalent: This jet injector doesn't use needle at all. Rather, the device "uses a high-pressure, narrow stream of fluid to penetrate the skin," according to the CDC.

If you're hesitating to get the flu shot for any reason, speak with your doctor about these options, which may address your needs or concerns.

A Word From Verywell

Getting vaccinated against the flu is important. You will protect not only yourself but those around you who may be at high risk for complications from the disease. Thousands of people die each year from influenza and complications that develop from it. Taking the time to get vaccinated could literally save a life.

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  1. Fernando GJP, Hickling J, Jayashi Flores CM, et al. Safety, tolerability, acceptability and immunogenicity of an influenza vaccine delivered to human skin by a novel high-density microprojection array patch (Nanopatch™). Vaccine. 2018;36(26):3779-3788. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2018.05.053

  2. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Researchers develop microneedle patch for flu vaccination.

  3. Brewer MG, Anderson EA, Pandya RP, et al. Peptides Derived from the Tight Junction Protein CLDN1 Disrupt the Skin Barrier and Promote Responsiveness to an Epicutaneous Vaccine. J Invest Dermatol. 2020;140(2):361-369.e3. doi:10.1016/j.jid.2019.06.145

  4. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2019-2020 Season.

  5. Grohskopf LA, Alyanak E, Broder KR, Walter EB, Fry AM, Jernigan DB. Prevention and Control of Seasonal Influenza with Vaccines: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices - United States, 2019-20 Influenza Season. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2019;68(3):1-21. doi:10.15585/mmwr.rr6803a1

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