Nobody enjoys getting shots at the doctor’s office. But vaccinations are necessary to keep us safe and healthy. Even so, needles can be scary and painful for children and adults alike.

Between 20% and 50% of adolescents are afraid of needles, according to a 2019 review published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. And adults struggle with shots, too — between 20% and 30% of young adults report a fear of needles.

“People’s reactions to needles can vary substantially,” says Bruce Y. Lee, MD. He’s a professor of health policy and management at CUNY School of Public Health & Health Policy and executive director of PHICOR (Public Health Informatics, Computational, and Operations Research). “It can range from barely feeling anything to trypanophobia, which is the fear of needles.”

Most needles are very thin. So why can shots be so painful?

“The skin has a lot of nerve receptors, which allow us the ability to sense touch very readily,” Dr. Lee explains. “Whenever anything triggers these receptors, pain can result.”

That’s why paper cuts often hurt so much, even though the cut isn’t very deep, Dr. Lee says.

Luckily, whether you’re getting a COVID booster or taking your children to get back-to-school vaccinations, there are ways to make the experience of getting shots less painful (both on your arm and your stress levels). Here are some tricks you can try to dull the pain of getting an injection, whether for yourself or your child.

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Decide whether you want to watch

Watching a needle go into your arm can be scary. In a 2018 Canadian Journal of Pain study, researchers found that advising patients to look away during an injection made them feel less afraid.

But some people prefer to watch, feeling that it’s better to know exactly what’s happening to them. Figure out which option makes you more comfortable.

Distract yourself

It’s harder to focus on a shot if you’re humming along to the song that’s playing in your provider’s office. Paying attention to something else can help take your mind off the injection.

“Distraction when getting the shot, such as talking to the person delivering the shot or having the patient drink something at the same time, can help,” Dr. Lee says.

Rub the skin before and after the injection

If you trip and bang your knee, you might automatically react by rubbing your injury. And that actually does help relieve the pain. The same logic can be applied to injection sites: Rubbing your arm before and after a shot can dull the sting.

“It can provide prior stimulation to the area that can then compete with the pain receptor signals,” Dr. Lee says.

“Your body can only feel one sensation at a time, so a light massage to a painful area can provide relief,” says Michelle Tellado, MD. She’s a pediatric specialist at Nemours Children’s Health Primary Care in Orlando, Florida.

Apply something topically

“Icing or applying something cool to the area after the vaccination can help,” Dr. Lee says. You can also try numbing the area with topical anesthetics, such as lidocaine cream, he suggests.

Recommended reading: How your pharmacist can keep you vaccinated.

Get moving afterward

Flexing your arm after receiving a vaccination can keep the blood circulating in that area, which reduces pain.

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How to make shots easier on children

No one likes to see their child in pain — or fearful. Use these 4 expert tips to make shots easier on the whole family.

Prepare your child beforehand

“If you aren’t sure if shots will be needed at the visit, feel free to tell your child that you’re unsure,” Dr. Tellado says. “If you know that shots are needed, starting the conversation early can make the unknown easier. Shots usually feel like a small insect bite or a small pinch. Equating it to a known experience reduces stress.”

It’s important to be honest with your child, though.

“An early lesson I learned was to never lie to a child,” says Sande Conway, a certified pediatric nurse and clinical operations manager for Nemours Children’s Health. “They will always remember it.”

Play it cool

“Children often look to parents for clues on how to react,” Dr. Tellado says. “If parents or providers apologize and look nervous, that will only add to the child’s fear.”

And science supports this. In a study from the University of California, Irvine, researchers found that smiling while receiving an injection can reduce pain by 40%. And a 2021 study from York University showed that when parents show signs of distress while their kids get a vaccine, the children experience more pain.

Comfort your child

Simply being there for your child while they’re getting a shot can greatly improve their experience.

“Seeing a familiar face during a vaccination can provide comfort,” Dr. Tellado says. “They know you are going to protect them and not let bad things happen. So if you’re helping, it must be safe.”

Give praise afterward

“Congratulate your kiddo on their bravery or give them a special treat,” Dr. Tellado says. “They can get an extra visit to the park or an extra story at bedtime. Do not underestimate the value of time with your child as a reward.”

Adults need vaccinations, too. If you’re afraid of needles, why not reward yourself after getting a shot? After all, you did a scary thing and made it through to the other side. Treat yourself to a favorite meal or take yourself to see a movie.

There are ways to ease the pain of getting a shot. And there are also ways to save money on your medications. Download our free mobile app to find the best coupons you can use at the pharmacy.

Additional sources
Study on prevalence of needle fear: Journal of Advanced Nursing (2019). “The fear of needles: A systematic review and meta-analysis”
Study on fear associated with watching vaccination vs. looking away: Canadian Journal of Pain (2018). “To look or not to look during vaccination: A pilot randomized trial”
Study on how facial expressions affect responses to injections: Emotion (2021). “Smile (or grimace) through the pain? The effects of experimentally manipulated facial expressions on needle-injection responses”
Study on how word choice and tone of voice can calm children during vaccination: Pain (2022). “What you say in the first minute after a vaccine can be key in reducing a child’s distress”