Here’s How to Take the Sting Out of Your Annual Flu Shot

No one likes a jab in the arm, but fear of flu shot pain shouldn't keep you from making this potentially lifesaving move. Here's how to make hurt less.

Ask any child why they dread the flu shot and they’ll give it to you straight: It hurts—sometimes a lot. Kids aren’t the only ones who feel this way. A quarter of adults report a fear of needles and shots that may keep them far away from the doctor’s office or clinic come flu season, according to a Canadian study. There’s even a medical term for fear of needles: trypanophobia.

But getting a flu shot could literally save your life—or the life of a loved one who may not be in as robust health, by helping stave off the flu and its complications. One study, published in the August 2016 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, showed that people 50 years and older who got a flu vaccine reduced their risk of getting hospitalized from flu by 57 percent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, everyone six months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every flu season, which begins in the United States as early as October and can last as late as May, though it’s never too late to get the flu shot as long as the virus is circulating.

It’s understandable to be afraid of flu shot pain, though not so much during the injection. “[The flu shot] can lead to soreness and flu shot arm pain afterward,” explains Greg Yapalater, MD, a pediatrician in New York City. Why does the flu shot hurt some people more than others? “Flu shot pain is emotional as well as physical,” Dr. Yapalater says. “There are topical approaches or emotional approaches to helping ease flu shot pain. We need to numb the area and we need to numb your brain so you don’t worry about pain.”

Minimize the ouch and the angst with these tricks:

Chill out

“If you are a flu-shot phobe, make sure you do deep breathing, meditation, or some type of relaxation before and during your appointment,” Dr. Yapalater says. It’s equally important not to do anything stressful (such as drinking three cups of coffee or researching the flu shot online) before heading into the doctor’s office. You should also avoid doing these 8 things that could screw up your flu shot.

Come prepared

“Ice your arm for three minutes, use numbing cream, and consider taking Tylenol ahead of time,” suggests Keri Peterson, MD, an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. This will also help eliminate some pain and soreness that may occur after the shot as well as the discomfort that occurs with the injection, she says. “The injector should also rub the arm vigorously for five seconds with the alcohol pad which also helps decrease the sensitivity of the skin.” Make sure the alcohol dries up before you get the shot. “When it is still wet, it may burn when the skin is punctured and it’s more effective in preventing infection after it dries.”

Treat yourself like a baby

“Sucking or chewing something sugary releases endorphins and can decrease the amount of pain you feel during a shot,” says Dr. Yapalater. Endorphins are the brain’s natural feel-good chemicals. “This is a trick we use with infants when we dip a pacifier in sugar water, and it works for adults too.” It also distracts your attention from the shot.

Choose wisely

Get the shot in your non-dominant arm, Dr. Yapalater advises, so as not compromise your functioning in case your arm is sore post shot. So if you’re a righty, ask for the shot in your left arm, and vice versa. “When people ask why does the flu shot hurt, I tell them that the tighter your arm muscles, the more painful the shot will be,” Dr. Yapalater says. “Squeeze a stress ball to relax the muscles in preparation.” And always insist on the dart technique. “When an injector uses a dart technique it hurts less,” Dr. Peterson adds. Darts go in quickly and steadily, she says. “The slower the needle enters the skin, the more it hurts.” Aside from your flu shot, here’s what else you need to have in a DIY flu-fighting kit.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD, on October 22, 2019

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.