aidarrowcaretcheckclipboardcommenterrorexperienceeyegooglegownmicroscopenavigatepillTimer IconSearchshare-emailFacebookLinkedInTwitterx

How to Get Shots if You’re Terrified of Needles

After an annual physical a few years ago, my doctor recommended blood work. While this is an entirely normal thing for patients to do once in a while, I tend to turn even the most minute task into a Process. This was no different.

I’ve been told on more than one occasion that my veins are some combination of “slippery,” “little” and “buggers.” These comments all mean the same thing — that my veins are difficult to hit — and typically culminate in a digging expedition, usually in both arms, until the phlebotomist finds a well that hasn’t run dry. In the meantime, my cottonmouth escalates to panting and my clammy palms sweat profusely. Eventually, unconsciousness sets in.

It’s safe to say I struggle with needles. A lot of people, in fact, react viscerally to the sight of a phlebotomist armed with a sterile syringe: In one 2009 study, 22 percent of patients surveyed at a primary care practice in Australia reported a fear of needles. Other research estimated that about 63 percent of children and 24 percent of adults are scared of needle procedures, including vaccinations and blood tests. This aversion can result in patients avoiding medical care altogether. 

The distress usually manifests in a few ways. Intense fear and anxiety are par for the course; sometimes there’s also fainting. The fainting component, caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure (vasovagal syncope), can be genetic.

Dr. Amy Baxter, a pediatric emergency physician and pain researcher, determined that some cases of needle fear can be traced back to a traumatic childhood event. The more vaccines a child between the ages of 4 and 6 received in a single medical visit, Baxter found, the more likely they were to report a fear of needles five years down the line.

Reactions from parents and doctors also contribute to needle fears in kids. If a doctor, for instance, claims that a needle “won’t hurt a bit” and then that needle does hurt a bit, the child might lose trust in the pro holding it. Additionally, if parents are nervous, children can absorb their anxiety.

As a result, subsequent vaccinations or blood draws can be met with fear — fear of the procedure and fear of the pain. “Fear is like ramping up the volume on your alarm system,” Baxter says. “People perceive more pain when they have fear.”

The good news is that we don’t have to live with fear and pain forever. Here are a few expert-approved tips to help patients young and old cope with needles.

Figure out what you’re really afraid of

A fear of needles could be related to pain, the sight of blood, the prospect of a foreign material entering your body or, in my case, passing out. “Another person might be afraid because they’re not sure of the different steps of the procedure,” says C. Meghan McMurtry, a clinical psychologist at the University of Guelph. “There can be different reasons you’re afraid, so the treatment needs to determine what it is you’re afraid of.”

Do you need pain-management skills? Exposure-based therapy? Physical exercises to keep blood flowing? Getting to the root of the fear is the first part of managing it.

Increase your exposure

Becoming familiar with needles, even if that means bingeing House, MD, can help normalize them. For those with extreme fear, experts suggest an exposure therapy regimen in which a professional slowly introduces the patient to needles. This process should begin with more abstract methods, like exposing the patient to photos of the fear source. “If someone was really afraid of the look of the needle, we might show them pictures in a book,” McMurtry says, “eventually graduating to sitting close to a needle.”

Baxter says that real-life needle experiences should get easier once a patient has endured three not-so-great needle scenarios.

Lessen the pain

Let’s face it: No one really likes getting a shot. It hurts. People who only have moderate anxiety over needle pain, or who’ve already accepted their fear and increased their needle exposure, can use pain-management methods to make the process more tolerable.

“There’s a tendency in our culture to say, ‘No pain, no gain,’ ‘It’s just a little pinch,’” McMurtry notes. “It’s not particularly helpful. There’s no reason you need to feel significant pain from a needle procedure. If we managed pain from the get-go, we probably would have many fewer adults afraid of needles.”

One easy pain suppressant is a topical anesthetic, applied 30 to 45 minutes before the needle breaks skin. Baxter has also developed a product called Buzzy. The bee-shaped tool, which can be used by children and adults, vibrates while simultaneously emitting cold. This helps block pain by confusing nerves at the injection site.

Whichever method of pain management you prefer, McMurtry stresses the importance of self-advocacy. If you want topical anesthetics, go ahead and lather some on. If you just want to look away while blood is being drawn, that’s your prerogative. “Everyone deserves management of pain from needles,” she says. “If someone has a really high level of needle fear, you need a different approach from someone who doesn’t have such a high level.”

Distract yourself

This goes beyond just looking away from your arm during the procedure, though that helps too. If you can focus on another task, such as counting the number of panels on the ceiling or answering a series of simple math problems prompted by a friend, then you’ll be less likely to feel the pain. “The focus part is really important because, while you’re getting the injection or the needle or the IV, the more you pay attention to that, the more it hurts,” Baxter says.

The key is to make sure the distraction task can be completed in between five and 15 seconds. A simple “How many fingers am I holding up?” is too easy, whereas attempting to find Waldo is too hard. During a recent visit, Baxter’s son counted the number of confetti specks in a tile on the floor of the doctor’s office.

Tense your muscles

For anyone who passes out, it’s especially important to keep blood pressure up. McMurtry suggests continuously flexing the leg and stomach muscles for 10- to 15-second intervals, interspersed by brief releases. Baxter mentions “giving yourself a handshake” and pulling your arms in opposite directions. “That move increases the amount of blood that goes into your heart temporarily,” she says.

Stay hydrated

Before a needle procedure, Baxter recommends drinking 16 ounces of water or a caffeinated beverage, which can help keep blood pressure raised.

Talk to the staff

No medical professional will judge you for freaking out at the sight of a syringe. “A lot of people have mistakenly thought that you don’t want to draw attention to it or ask about it,” Baxter says. “That increases the shame. It doesn’t help mitigate the problem.” Instead, if doctors and nurses are aware of your fear, especially if you get lightheaded, they’re more likely to accommodate your needs by suggesting you lie down.

Being open to communication and setting reasonable expectations are part of the process too. “Certainly we don’t tell people it’s not going to hurt at all,” she says, Then if it does, you’ve lost any kind of credibility. It’s important to be realistic.”

Show Comments (20)
  1. Haily Weis

    What if you are so scared of needles if one goes by you and you run out of the room what will the doctor do??

    1. Sofia Solano-Arango

      Trust me, I do that all the time. They force me down on a table and I scream like a 2-year-old. It’s so embarrassing.

  2. Alan

    You have no idea of the fear. I am so beyond the fear that it has now been diagnosed as PTSD, after 50 bloody years of living with it. Most doctors think it is a joke, some nurses openly laugh. I am that zero.1 of individuals who are beyond help, and no one gives a damn!

    1. Beck

      Hello Alan I do give a damn. I’ve been avoiding needles almost 20 years. So I know how it is. Most people do not get it. Medical professionals should really be trained about needle phobia.

      1. Sofi

        I completely agree

  3. Lorelei

    I’m getting 5 shots tomorrow and I have phobia of needles and I’m having a panic attack so tomorrow I am going to try this

    1. Dakota

      I know how you feel, good luck

  4. peter

    most medics don’t get it or just think your a problem, they should be trained to reconnise we have a distinct phobia (typanophobia) and waiting in the surgery just adds to it, i have walked out to later return and tryed to explain but seemed to be greeted with hurry up we have other people to see , no one seems to care

  5. Dakota

    When they say the needle will barely hurt or not hurt at all, THEY LIE….. IT HURTS SO FRICKING MUCH!!!!!! I had to get a procedure done in February, and I was crying before they put the needle. I wish I could avoid needles for the rest of life, but I still need my injections to go to school. I feel like a little kid the way I scream in pain

  6. Tracey

    This article pisses me off. It completely trivializes the terror of needle phobia and over simplifies ways to overcome it. Such bull crap. Why don’t doctors just give patients a pill to knock them out or laughing gas? My dentist does it for me because I have a fear of the dentist. Works beautifully. I don’t understand why general practitioners refuse to do this. They have NO sympathy.

  7. Maddie

    I am petrified of needles, my palms get all sweaty and i feel lightheaded. I am going to turn 13 soon and i’m afraid that thy will really hurt. If anyone knows what 13 year-old hots feel like plz tell me! I]Be honest because no one else is honest about shots.

    1. anonyous

      I am turning 13 soon to and I can not stop thinking about the shot myself because when my older sister went my mom came home and told me that she squeezed her hand so hard because it hurt so much and I am petrified to go. and it has been haunting me.

      1. Rylee

        I have to get mine today and they are going to really hurt. I used to run around the room and cry and then they would hold me down. There not to fun…

  8. Clare

    I’m pretty sure a lot (ok, maybe all?) of those in the comments are afraid of needles, as I am. But I seem to have a different reaction. When faced with situations that I particularly fear (eye appointments, VACCINATIONS, etc.), I start to laugh until I cry and can’t stop. The moment the nurse steps into the room with the tray of syringes and sorts, I start bursting into a giggling fit. Now, this isn’t because I think the situation is funny; it’s the contrary. Does this also happen to anyone else, or is it just me? I’m taking shots in the process of enrollment in a new school and I feel that my fear of shots will isolate me from others because all my other peers seem to have a strange tolerance for shots.

  9. Harley

    While I didn’t find the advice helpful (same things I’ve heard to do for years), it was nice to see that my trauma is valid. I had to get allergy tested 3 separate times as a kid (63 pokes to the back each) and seeing that it has shown that kids who go through that kind of stuff do have a phobia felt nice for me.

    But, I do wish that doctors would be willing to give some kind of anxiety meds to help with anxiety. My dentist will give me a Valium to help calm me, but the doctors won’t give me anything despite seeing me, going on 16, break down, kick, scream, anything because I have to get a shot.

    1. Scarlet

      I have a similar reaction to shots as many have stated in previous comments. I have an EXTREME FEAR of needles of any kind (just typing “needles” makes me tense and worried) and when encountered with a needle in the room that I am in, I can’t control my desperate crying and escaping reactions. I don’t know what to do- I HAVE A FREAKIN SURGERY TOMORROW! Does anyone have any strategies (that actually work, unlike the ones in this article) that help them while they get a shot? PLEASE RESPOND SOON, I NEED ADVICE BY TOMORROW!!!!!

  10. Joe Blobby

    You write an article about a fear of vaccine shots – which go into the muscle – then address a fear of IV blood tests which go into the vein. Not hepful.

  11. Liv

    I have my double year 9 needles next week. I haven’t been able to sleep and I’m genuinley terrified. I think it’s more the thought of knowing that I’m letting myself get hurt. When I ask for advice or google advice it’s just nonsense. ‘It’s just a poke, it lasts for 2 seconds, try not to worry’ – of course I’m going to worry. It wasn’t my choice to have a fear of needles. When I got my second year 8 one, teachers from the classrooms upstairs came down to see what was happening because I was screaming so loud. If anyone’s had them can you tell me some more about them? The only reason I’m getting them is because if I get the illness that they’re trying to protect me against, I’ll have to have a lot more than 2.

  12. cass

    Honestly, while the article didn’t offer any advice I hadn’t heard; it helped me kind of pinpoint why I’m afraid without being able to get better. My phobia started around when my sister became afraid of needles, but she managed to get over it. I think it’s interesting thinking about distrust in doctors, because I now have 3 piercings (nostril, upper lobe, and helix/upper cartilage) and I never really was able to pinpoint why it didn’t bother me. I think it’s because of the fact that my piercer never sugarcoated how much it would hurt and she was never super pressuring. She made sure I knew it was my choice and that no one would be upset if I backed out. I think doctors should take notes. I think the big issue is while people are genuinely riddled with anxiety, they see our terror as a schedule inconvenience, which just creates a disconnect and feels like they’re invalidating the phobia which we can’t control. My dentist prescribed me a singular Xanax pill for before my wisdom teeth removal, so let’s hope it works

Leave a Comment

About us

The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.