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How To Help Kids With Needle Fears When They Get The COVID-19 Vaccine

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Nobody likes getting shots, right? But for some, especially children, the prospect of a needle can be terrifying. Now that 12- to 15-year-olds are able to get the Pfizer vaccine, parents with needle-phobic kids might have to do a little more to prepare them for the jab. Anna Taddio has a strategy that can help. She's a pharmacist and researcher at the University of Toronto who specializes in pain mitigation. And she joins me now. Hello.

ANNA TADDIO: Hi - nice to meet you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nice to meet you, too. We're not talking about just hesitancy here, right? We're talking about kids who, in the words of one of my parent colleagues, will whip themselves into a froth at the mere idea of getting a shot. So what can happen to kids who experience that degree of phobia?

TADDIO: We do consider pain and fears of needles to be part of vaccine hesitancy because, as you just mentioned, it can be so severe and definitely can be a reason why someone decides not to get the needle. So in the grander scheme of things, it is a barrier to vaccination. But it is something that, actually, we can do a lot about. And we can take that barrier away. And that's what we're trying to do now - is teach kids and parents all the strategies that they can use to try to make it less of a worrisome part of getting vaccination. And for kids of the age group that you mentioned - teens - their biggest worry about getting needles is fear of pain.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you advocate for the CARD system, which stands for comfort, ask, relax and distract. Let's start with comfort. What can kids do to get comfortable before getting the jab?

TADDIO: Kids can think, what makes them comfortable? Would they like someone to be there to hold their hand? Do they think maybe they could wear something comfortable so that it's easy for the person who's giving them the needle to reach their arms, so they're not struggling to move their clothes out of the way? Do they want to sit upright? How would they feel more comfortable? So just trying to think of what makes you feel good and then bringing that to the appointment when you get your needle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next is ask. Ask what?

TADDIO: Sometimes, we're afraid to ask questions. But actually, there's a lot of things that worry us. And worry can make us afraid. So if we don't know enough about what's going to happen during the vaccination, we might be scared of it. So if we have questions like, how long is this going to take? Is there something I can do to help me with the pain? Are there medicines I can use to make this hurt less? Or any other question you might have about the vaccine itself - ask because if you have your questions addressed, again, you feel more prepared. And then you have ways to cope. So you might learn about things that you didn't even know, like, for kids especially being able to use something like a topical anesthetic cream. And that's a medicine that can numb the skin, so the needle hurts less. So just finding out about those options - and then you can use them when you get your needle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then relax and distract.

TADDIO: Yeah. The common things that people can do are things like have some self-talk telling yourself you can get through this, like, I can do this - so some brave talk towards yourself. You can do deep belly breaths. That can decrease your heart rate, so that can make you more calm. One thing that's important to note is when people are nervous or distressed during vaccination, that can actually lead them to have more side effects. So there's lots of what we call stress-related reactions, not just fear but feeling dizzy, having a headache, feeling nauseous and even fainting. So the relax card that you can play will go a long way to trying to keep you calm, so you don't have those side effects.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I guess distracting means like, you know, trying to make sure they're thinking about other things or allowing them to watch something, maybe.

TADDIO: Yeah, absolutely. So distraction works in all ages, as well. If our mind is not focused on pain, then we experience less pain because your brain is busy doing something else. So bringing a cell phone and playing a game, doing something else would be a really great way of having them not focus on the pain. The caveat with that is not everybody wants to be distracted, actually. And about a third of people like to look and like to know what's going on. It helps them to feel like they're in control.

One important point also with playing your own cards, which is how we talk about this, is that you give people the option of what cards they want to play. So there's really no wrong move because everyone decides what would be helpful for them. And then the health care provider supports them in those choices.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Anna Taddio from the University of Toronto. Thank you very much.

TADDIO: Thank you, Lulu. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.