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 called the Nanopatch that appears to be as effective as the traditional flu vaccine injection, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Vaccine.

Although the device is still in the early trial phase, the current findings are promising and the vaccine could soon be on its way to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for formal approval.

Flu patch
 Christopher Moore, Georgia Tech

How the Flu Patch Works

The experimental, self-adhesive flu patch contains thousands of water-soluble microneedles that dissolve into the skin to deliver the seasonal flu 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 your regular trash (no need for a sharps container).

Other significant benefits of the Nanopatch are that it can be delivered in the mail and self-administered. It doesn't require refrigeration or special training to put it on. This would eliminate the need for a doctor or pharmacy visit every flu season.

Researchers and public health officials hope that a device like this could significantly increase flu vaccination rates, which currently fall below the 50% mark in the United States.

As of early 2021, the transdermal influenza patch vaccine is still in the trial phase and is not yet available to the general public.

Safety and Effectiveness

Phase 1 research from the National Institutes of Health published in The Lancet concluded that the flu patch was as safe as a flu injection.

To assess the product's safety, the researchers enrolled 100 adult participants who were divided into four random groups:

  • Group 1 received the flu patch administered by a healthcare provider
  • Group 2 self-administered the flu patch
  • Group 3 received the traditional flu shot administered by a healthcare provider
  • Group 4 received a placebo patch administered by a healthcare provider

Immune responses to the various flu strains (measured through blood tests) were essentially the same 28 days after vaccination for both Nanopatch users and people given a traditional flu shot.

Protection against the three flu strains (H1N1, H3N2, and a B strain called NYMC BX-51) were also similar six months after the vaccinations.

Similar findings were reported in the 2020 study published in PLoS Medicine, in which the Nanopatch was shown to have similar efficacy to a flu shot after 60 days.

Although side effects were generally mild across all groups, people given the Nanopatch were more likely to have mild to moderate application-site reactions compared to those given a traditional flu shot or placebo patch.

What Happens Next

In the next step toward FDA approval, the researchers recruited 100 volunteers in New Zealand, Texas, and Massachusetts to test the effectiveness of the Nanopatch.

According to the pre-publication data, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, the device achieved consistently higher immune responses to influenza than the flu shots across all three groups.

It is yet unclear how relevant the differences are; even so, the preliminary data suggests that the Nanopatch may be at the very least equal to that of the flu shot.

Larger scale studies are still needed before the Nanopatch will be available to the general public, but researchers are hopeful that it will continue to prove safe and effective.

It is also envisioned that the patch technology could be used to administer other types of vaccines as well.

Current Flu Vaccination Options

Given that it may still be some years before the Nanopatch makes its way to market shelves, you should continue to get your annual flu vaccination as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are multiple options available, including standard quadrivalent (four-in-one) flu shots, cell-based flu vaccines for people with egg allergies, and high-dose flu vaccines for older adults.

There are also non-traditional options for people who fear big needles. These include:

  • FluMist: A nasal spray vaccine that employs a weakened live vaccine
  • Fluzone: A flu shot that is delivered between the layers of skin; a tiny needled is used to penetrate just the skin, as opposed to a large muscle
  • Afluria: A jet injector that uses high pressure to deliver the vaccine through the skin without a needle

If you're hesitant to get the flu shot for any reason, speak with your doctor about these options as they may help overcome your worries and 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.

Thousands of people die each year from influenza, and the flu you get could very well travel around the planet. Taking the time to get vaccinated could literally save a life.

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