Give It Your Best Shot When Getting a Flu Shot

November 20, 2006

In a nation awash in flu vaccine, millions of people are lining up to get their annual flu shots. With more than 100 million doses expected to be available across the nation this year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promoting “National Influenza Vaccination Week” Nov. 27 to Dec. 3, a crucial question looms: How can you minimize the discomfort and pain from the shot?

Helpful advice comes from a small band of nurses in a vaccine research center at the University of Rochester Medical Center who have given thousands of injections over the years.

Here are their top 10 tips to ease the “ow factor” this year:

10) Relax! This advice isn’t just to make you feel better emotionally. If you’re at ease, your arm muscle is relaxed, and the needle goes into the muscle very easily and effortlessly. If your arm is tense, the muscle will put up a lot of resistance against the needle, increasing pain dramatically as the nurse pushes hard to get the needle all the way into the muscle.

“Everyone comes in and sticks their arm out, ready for the shot,” says nurse Mary Lou Werthman. “That’s the last thing you want to do. You want to let your arm go limp and fall to the side. It will save you hours or maybe days of discomfort later on.”

9) Don’t watch the needle go in, suggests staffer Barbara Mahoney.

8) Assume some control over the process, says Barb Fernaays. If the nurse doesn’t take the time to explain exactly what is about to happen, ask. You should have some warning before your skin is swabbed, before the needle touches your skin, and so on.

7) Wear loose-fitting clothing so the upper arm is easily accessible. Occasionally people find they have to practically disrobe at a public clinic when their sleeve wouldn’t roll up high enough to receive the shot.

6) Remember that getting the flu would be much worse than the injection to prevent it, says Jean Comstock.

5) Don’t mistake the needle for the kind used when you have blood taken – the needle there is larger, and the procedure takes much longer. A flu shot just takes an instant, and the needle is tiny compared to those used to draw blood.

4) Be kind to the nurse. Say hello in a friendly manner. Exchanging pleasantries makes the whole affair more enjoyable, and in any case, it’s never a bad policy to be extra nice to anyone who has access to a sharp implement.

3) As Thanksgiving approaches, give thanks for the flu shot, nearly eliminating the risk that you’ll be among the 36,000 people in the nation who die each year from the flu.

2) Quit being a wuss. “Just suck it up,” says Pat Smith.

And the number-one thing to do when receiving a flu shot, if all else fails:

1) “When the nurse asks, ‘Which arm?’ point to somebody else and say, ‘His arm!’” says Valerie Davis, who quickly adds: “Of course I’m just kidding. Everyone should get a flu shot.”

The Rochester nurses are part of an elite network of centers funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to protect the population from scourges such as bird flu, anthrax, smallpox, malaria, and other infectious diseases. Nearly every day of the year, research participants come forward, roll up their sleeves and get a shot in the effort to develop and test new vaccines. As a result, the nurses on the unit, known as the Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit (VTEUs), get a close-up look at what makes the experience painful or pleasant.

The Rochester nurses have played a key role helping keep diseases like whooping cough, pneumonia, and bird flu at bay. Research participants there get injections that may or may not protect them from certain diseases – that’s why scientists are studying them. But a regular flu shot benefits the person receiving it directly.

“One of the easiest things you can do to keep yourself healthy all winter long is to get your flu shot,” says D’Arcy Gaisser, clinical coordinator of Rochester’s VTEU. “Be proactive in your health care. Just relax, suck it up and get it done.”

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