Over half of adults unvaccinated for COVID-19 fear needles – here’s what’s proven to help

Over half of adults unvaccinated for COVID-19 fear needles – here’s what’s proven to help


Even for those who want immunity, bribes with beer or lottery tickets may not be enough to override anxiety made worse by pervasive images of needles in the media.

By Amy Baxter, The Conversation, June 11, 2021

If you’re among the 25% of Americans averse to needles, you’re probably not surprised by the COVID-19 immunization stall. Even for those who want immunity, bribes with beer or lottery tickets may not be enough to override anxiety made worse bypervasive images of needles in the media.

As aphysician specializing in pain management, I study the impact of pain on vaccination. Research-proven adult interventions for pain, fainting, panic and fear can make vaccination more tolerable. At a minimum, understanding the reasons needle fear has become common might make the embarrassment easier to bear.

Why needle anxiety has increased

Needle fear has increased dramatically since a landmark 1995 study by J.G. Hamilton reported that10% of adults and 25% of childrenfeared needles. In that paper, adult patients who remembered when their fear began described a stressful needle experience around age 5.

The childhood experiences of the patients usually related to an unexpected illness; at the time the Hamilton participants were in preschool, vaccines were scheduled only until age 2. For most people born after 1980, however,booster injectionsgiven between ages 4 to 6 years became a routine part of the vaccine experience. The timing of boosters maximizes and prolongs immunity, but unfortunately fallswithin the age windowwhen phobias form. A 2012 Canadian study of 1,024 children found that63% of those born in 2000 or laternow fear needles. In a 2017 study, my colleagues and I confirmed this increase in prevalence:Half of preschoolerswho got all their boosters on one day – often four or five injections at once – were still severely afraid of needles as preteens.

Unsurprisingly, needle fear affects how willing teens and adults are to get vaccinated. A 2016 study found needle fear to be the most common reason teens didn’t get asecond HPV vaccine. Health care workers are no exception: A 2018 study found that27% of hospital employeesdodged flu vaccines due to needle fear. And most recently, an April 2021 national survey of 600 not-yet-COVID-19-vaccinated U.S. adults found that52% reported moderate to severe needle fear.

Potential solutions for adults

For children, evidence shows that addressing theirfear and pain while distracting themfrom the procedure is most effective in reducing distress.

While adults are not just big children, combining these concepts with findings from available adult injection studies suggest a few potential interventions. For the many who want a vaccine but need some support, here’s what we know:

1. Pain reduction

Relieving injection pain may reduce needle fear by giving patients a feeling of control. For example, a group of patients in New Zealand were repeatedly missing their monthly antibiotic injections for rheumatic heart disease. Their doctors created a special clinic, offering either anesthetics, a vibrating cold device or both during the shot. The interventions in 107 adultsreduced pain and fear by 50%after three months. Six months later, half the patients still used the interventions, and the special “missed dose” clinic was no longer needed.

Specifically for vaccination,applying a vibrating cold deviceto the injection site a minute prior to injection, then pressing just above the site during injection, relieved pain and improved satisfaction for adults, and wasmost effective for those with needle fear. Ahorseshoe-shaped plastic deviceusing sharp prongs to confuse the nerves also reduced injection pain but increased anxiety, possibly due to discomfort from the prongs themselves.

Cold spray doesn’t help reducevaccination pain for children, but has been shown to be more effective than topical anesthetics foradult injections.

2. Psychological therapy

Exposure-based therapyinvolves asking a patient to rank anxiety caused by parts of a procedure, like seeing a picture of a tourniquet or thinking about sharp things, and gradually exposing them to these parts in a controlled environment. Freeself-guided resourcesare available for fears ranging from flying to spiders. However,none of the three studiestesting this approach on adult needle fear showed long-term fear reduction.

One of the studies that taught techniques to reduce fainting, however, was considered a success. Fainting, orvasovagal syncope, and needle fear are often conflated. While passing out due to injections is more common with anxiety, it is oftena genetic response. Tensing thestomach musclesincreases the volume of blood the heart can pump, keeping blood in the brain to prevent lightheadedness during needle procedures.

3. Distraction

Surprisingly, there areno studies on adultsusing distraction for injections. Two studies, however, have found thatpretending to coughreduces pain from blood draws.

Dropping F-bombs could also help: A recent study found thatswearing reduced pain by one-thirdcompared to saying nonsense words. Distraction with virtual reality games or videos has been shown to be more effective in children, although there have beenmixed results in adults.

Mentally engaging tasks may also help.A visual finding taskgiven to children during intramuscular shots has been shown to reduce pain and fear, with 97% rating the experience more pleasant than previous blood draws. Adults may need a more complicated task, but a similar intervention could work for them as well.

Use multiple interventions and go in with a plan

To reduce needle fear, research suggests the more interventions, the better. A 2018 study summarizing research on vaccine pain concluded that patient-operatedcold and vibration devices combined with distraction techniqueswere most effective. Canada has implemented a practicalnational needle fear interventionfor their vaccine rollout, emphasizing preparing ahead to help make vaccine day more comfortable.

Adults who don’t like needles are in the majority. Taking control of your vaccination experience may be the best way to combat needle anxiety.

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