Tips for how to make a shot not hurt
Whether you’re due for your COVID-19 booster, taking your children for vaccinations, or administering a self-injection, the thought of getting a shot can be a stressful one for kids and adults alike.
Fortunately, there are ways to make the experience of getting shots less painful — for both your skin and your stress levels.
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1. Decide whether you want to look.
Watching a needle go into your arm can be scary. In a 2018 study in the Canadian Journal of Pain, researchers found that advising patients to look away during an injection made them feel less afraid.
On the other hand, some people prefer to watch the needle go in, feeling that it’s better to know exactly what’s happening to them. You can try both and figure out which option makes you more comfortable.
2. Distract yourself.
It’s harder to focus on a shot if you’re humming along to the song 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,” 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).
3. Rub the skin before and after the injection.
If you trip and bang your knee, you might automatically react by rubbing your injury, which actually does help relieve the pain. You can apply the same logic 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, Fla.
4. Apply a topical numbing agent.
If a healthcare professional is administering the shot, ask if they can apply anything to your skin before or after the shot to help numb the sensation. You can do the same at home with self-injected medications.
“Icing or applying something cool to the area after the vaccination can help,” Dr. Lee says. “You can also ask to try numbing the area with topical anesthetics, such as lidocaine cream,” he suggests.
5. Get moving afterward.
Flexing your arm after receiving a vaccination can keep the blood circulating in that area, which reduces pain.
Tips to make shots easier on children
It’s difficult for any parent to see their child fearful or in pain, even if you know the benefits of injections like vaccinations. Here are some tips for kid-friendly shots.
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1. Prepare your child ahead of time.
“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.”
2. 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. Researchers in a 2021 study tested whether making a facial expression during an injection affected the experience of pain. They found that people who smiled had lower heart rates and reported 40% less pain than those with no expression.
A 2022 study showed that when parents displayed signs of distress while their kids received a vaccine, the children experienced more pain.
3. 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.”
4. Give praise afterward.
“Congratulate your kiddo on their bravery or give them a special treat,” Dr. Tellado says. The bonus does not need to be a material object, either. “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.”
How common is it to be afraid of shots?
“People’s reactions to needles can vary substantially,” Dr. Lee says.
Up to half of adolescents are afraid of needles, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. This fear tends to decrease with age, but between 20% and 30% of young adults also reported a 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.”
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Tips for making a shot hurt less include distracting yourself, rubbing the area after the shot, and applying ice or another topical number agent to your skin.
Fear of needles is relatively common, particularly among children and adolescents.
Parents and caregivers can help make shots easier for children by preparing them ahead of time, smiling and comforting them during the injection, and offering praise or a reward afterward.
It’s important to receive recommended medications, particularly vaccinations. If your or your family’s fear of needles is preventing you from receiving the shots you need, talk with your doctor about ways to make the experience easier.
Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on prescription medications.
- McLenon J, et al. (2019). The fear of needles: A systematic review and meta-analysis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30109720/
- Mithal P, et al. (2018). To look or not to look during vaccination: A pilot randomized trial. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/24740527.2017.1412254
- Pressman SD, et al. (2021). Smile (or grimace) through the pain? The effects of experimentally manipulated facial expressions on needle-injection responses. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Femo0000913
- Shiff I, et al. (2022). Trajectories of distress regulation during preschool vaccinations: Child and caregiver predictors. https://journals.lww.com/pain/Abstract/2022/03000/Trajectories_of_distress_regulation_during.29.aspx