How Fear of Needles Starts - and How You Can Overcome It

A woman receiving a vaccination
Choose the health content that's right for you, and get it delivered right in your inbox

Let's be honest. Nobody particularly enjoys getting shots.

But for some people, just thinking about needles can trigger a reaction that's more serious than momentary discomfort. Full-blown needle phobia can induce extreme anxiety to the tune of dizziness, nausea, chest pain and a racing heart.

Worse, it can keep people from getting important vaccines or going to the doctor altogether.

Dr. Timothy Hendrix, medical director of AdventHealth Centra Care Urgent Care, says being afraid of a shot is normal.

"Most people who I've encountered don't like needles," he said. "Some have a fear that prevents them from getting immunized, which can affect their long-term health."

Grace-Ann Sutherland, MSN, an AdventHealth nurse practitioner, said she's seen that fear prevent patients from getting shots and lab tests.

"I've seen people pass out," she says. "It's a real fear."

A new study out of Atlanta shows that in teens, fear of needles may correspond with the number of vaccine injections they received in a single doctor visit as young children (four to six years old). The more shots they got in one sitting, the more severe their fear became.

Receiving several shots at once can be especially difficult for children, says Sutherland, the nurse practitioner.

Her own son developed an intense fear of needles that persisted into adulthood after receiving four immunizations at one time as a boy.

"He yelled and screamed and really developed a fear of needles into his adult life and I had to talk him through that," Sutherland says.

Dr. Hendrix notes there may be a trade-off between spreading out vaccinations and missing an opportunity.

"If I've got somebody in the office, I want to take care of them at that moment," he says. "If I say to come back next month, there's a chance that a follow-up opportunity will be lost."

This study, combined with other recent research, suggests that fear of needles is widespread and growing - and leading to a dangerous trend of skipping shots that are necessary for keeping the population safer.

For example, a 2012 study, which looked at more than 800 parents and 1,000 children, found that 24 percent of the parents and 63 percent of the children had a fear of needles. Of those, 7 percent of the parents and 8 percent of the children cited needle phobia as the top reason for avoiding recommended vaccines.

And fear of needles has more than tripled in the last 30 years. This spike correlates with an increase in vaccine doses recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but researchers aren't sure if that's connection or just a coincidence.

Here's the rub: aside from protecting yourself or your own children from diseases like measles, mumps and polio, getting CDC-recommended vaccines helps protect those in your local schools, your community, your state and the nation as a whole.

The people most vulnerable to vaccine-preventable illness, such as older adults and infants, sometimes cannot get vaccinated themselves for health reasons. And the protection of a vaccine is not perfect even for those who can.

When you get vaccinated, it protects the most vulnerable by breaking the chain of infection that viruses rely on to spread. In other words, a virus has a much tougher time reaching a vulnerable person if everyone in his or her household is immunized.

Tips for Overcoming a Fear of Needles

If just thinking about needles is enough to make you swear off doctor visits, here are some important tips for you:

Reframe your thinking. It may sound easier said than done, but consider this: phobias are, by definition, extreme irrational fears. Remind yourself that any pain associated with shots or blood draws are over almost instantaneously

For Dr. Hendrix himself, staying positive minimizes discomfort.

"The minute I roll up my sleeve, I think positive thoughts," he says. "It's not going to hurt, and it'll be over in a minute."

Try not to worry. One surefire way to stress yourself out about a shot is to worry about it incessantly in the preceding days and weeks. But that dread does nothing but amplify the fear and make the appointment itself more panic-inducing.

Telling a child about an upcoming shot several weeks in advance may only stoke their fear, Dr. Hendrix says.

"We're not lying to them, but we are not causing them undue stress," he says.

Moreover, when it's time to give the shot, holding a child down may backfire in the long term.

"If you get them to participate and do it right the first time, they are less likely to have that fear in the future," Dr. Hendrix says.

Get your doctor or nurse involved. When you go to get a shot, be upfront with your medical team about your fear. You can even tell them in advance, while you're making the appointment over the phone. When the big day comes, your doctor or nurse may take a little extra time getting you comfortable and ready for the shot or use special techniques to distract you.

Whether for children or adults, the best tactic to minimize discomfort from needles is distraction, Dr. Hendrix says.

"Especially with my own children, I give them an iPad or have them watch something on TV," he says. When it's time for his own annual flu shot, Dr. Hendrix tries to avoid thinking about it.

"I turn my head away and hum a little song and focus away from what the nurse is doing," he says.

When they're informed of a patient's worries in advance, nurses have their own techniques to minimize fear.

AdventHealth Registered Nurse Kaitlin Asanoff says she prefers to know in advance, so she can prepare.

"Keeping the actual needle out of their sight is always helpful to prevent fear from getting heightened," she says.

Face your fear. Sometimes, viewing pictures of needles or even handling a needle (in a safe, monitored setting at a doctor's office or pharmacy) can help you overcome your fear. Once the needle becomes more familiar and less fearful, it may help you take your next shot in stride.

Consider therapy. In severe cases, people with needle phobia may want the help of a licensed professional counselor or therapist. Using methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), these mental health professionals can help you gain control over your fear.

Get the shot. The best cure for fear of needles may be simply getting the shot - and proving to yourself you can do it.

Recent Blogs

March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month
Congenital heart disease care from birth to adulthood
Protect kids from drowning dangers this pool season
Group of active mature friends in park stacking hands after workout - stock photo
Live Heart Healthy: 7 Steps for Lifelong Health
Physical Effects of Stress: Manage It to Protect Your Health
View More Articles