If you’re like me and have had the flu in the past, then you know the sheer misery that comes along with being struck down by what feels like a viral hurricane rampaging through your head and body that’s so incredibly painful and so utterly fatiguing, you’re convinced you’ve developed some new strain of exotic disease that doctors will write about in medical journals…shortly after your certain demise from the horrendous bug. (Only we former flu sufferers know this is not even a little bit of exaggeration.)
That’s why like clockwork every year, I line up at the drugstore or doctor’s office and get my influenza vaccination.
Ever since I was convinced of the power of annual flu jabs, I’ve gotten mine–and I’ve been flu-free ever since. (I’m pretty sure Kleenex’s stock suffered a bit the day I walked in for my first flu shot.)
Are you someone who doesn’t worry about the flu or only gets a mild case (you lucky b&*%$)? There’s still plenty of reason to get vaccinated: Your mild bout of the flu can be transmitted to those with a weakened immune system who are unable to get a flu shot (such as babies) or to those with a weakened immune system and for whom the flu shot isn’t as effective (such as the elderly). And that tiny sniffle you’re dealing with can be passed onto them, leading to a serious–sometimes fatal–illness.
These reasons are why I like to do my part in encouraging you to make your annual march to your pharmacy or healthcare provider to get your influenza vaccine. And one way I can do that is by showing you how to miminize the pain of the shot–a major barrier for many folks who shy away from it. Even though the needle is tiny and the pain is mild relative to other types of shots, a fear of injections can ramp up anxiety, making you expect the worst.
So, when planning your flu shot, if you have the ability to schedule it at a certain time in your monthly hormone cycle, then I recommend you get it during your Week 2–which is the week leading up to and including ovulation.
That’s because on these days in your cycle, high estrogen helps lessen the pain of the shot and post-injection arm muscle soreness by blunting pain sensations.
Can’t schedule your influenza vaccine for a high-estrogen day? Or do you reallyreallyreally dread the pain of a flu shot? Here are three proven pain-reducing tricks:
- Use a smaller needle: Ask if your doctor, nurse or pharmacist offers an “intradermal needle”, which uses a needle that’s 90% shorter and is injected into the skin rather than the muscle, resulting in less pain.
- Try coughing: Sounds strange, but research (such as this study and this study) suggests that coughing the moment the needle touches your skin can mask the pain of a shot, possibly by triggering a sudden rise in blood pressure or by simply distracting you. I actually use this easy cough trick every time I get a shot–and it works for me. Just be sure to give the person giving you your shot a warning that you plan to cough. You never want to startle someone holding a needle.
- Press your arm: Simply pressing the area of your arm where you’re going to get your flu shot for 10 seconds right before the injection reduces discomfort afterward, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Nursing. The reason? Pressing the skin stimulates nerves in the area, which reduces sensitivity to pain.
- Be in a good mood: Sounds strange, but a new study in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity shows that folks who got their flu shot while feeling upbeat had a stronger antibody reaction (indicating the vaccine provides more protection) than those who got their shot while in a dour mood. Why the link? Moods impact the release of certain brain chemicals (such as the stress hormone cortisol, inflammatory compounds and antibodies) that all affect how your immune system responds. The more elevated your mood, the better the response.
- Get your shot in the morning: A 2016 study from the U.K.’s University of Birmingham suggests that getting your vaccination in the morning lowers your risk of catching the flu more than getting it in the afternoon. It may be because the immune system is stronger in the early hours of the day, which helps the body produce more flu-fighting antibodies.
- Exercise after your shot: Mounting evidence (including this and this) shows that mild to moderate exercise–such as walking, biking or even housecleaning–for about 90 minutes after you get your vaccine helps you develop nearly twice as many flu-fighting antibodies as would if you were inactive after getting your shot. As the researchers explain it, aerobic activity speeds up circulation and helps pump the vaccine away from the injection site to other parts of the body. Tip: While mild to moderate exercise is beneficial, overexertion can actually cause a drop in antibody protection, reducing your flu shot’s effectiveness. So, avoid high-intensity workouts for the two weeks it takes for antibodies to fully develop in your system following your vaccination.
- Avoid OTC painkillers at the time of your shot: Research from the University of Missouri reveals that aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol and other over-the-counter medications can block an enzyme that’s needed to help form flu antibodies.
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