These pro tips will help make your vaccine experience a breeze.

By Barbara Field
April 27, 2021
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If you booked a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, you might be feeling a mix of emotions. Maybe you're excited to finally take this protective measure and (hopefully) help contribute to a return to precedented times. But at the same time, you could be a little anxious about the thought of needles or side effects. Whatever's going through your head, if you think you'll take comfort in feeling extra prepared, there are steps you can take to get ready for your appointment. (Ya know, beyond choosing a vaccine shirt to wear.)

Keep reading for expert tips on how to prep yourself to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

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Credit: AdobeStock

Calm Any Fears

If you have a fear of injections, you're not alone. "About 20 percent of people have a fear of needles and injections," says Danielle J. Johnson, M.D., F.A.P.A. psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Lindner Center of HOPE in Mason, Ohio. "This fear stems from the fact that injections can hurt, but the fear can be also learned as a child when seeing adults in your life behave as if shots are scary." (Related: I've Tried 100+ Stress-Relief Products — Here's What Actually Worked)

This can be more than just minor jitters. "Some people experience a vasovagal response, such as fainting," says Dr. Johnson. "Then injections can lead to an ongoing anxiety that it will happen again anytime they get a shot." It's unclear whether it's the anxiety causing the fainting or vice versa, according to an article in the Yonsei Medical Journal. One theory is that anxiety can trigger an excessive parasympathetic response in the brain, which leads to a slowed heart rate and reflex vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels), according to the article. Vasodilation can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, which can lead to fainting.

Ease Anxiety and Stress

Getting organized and preparing yourself beforehand might help relieve stress, since it can help you feel in control of the situation. Before your appointment, read about the vaccine from reliable sources. Review travel directions and have your identification ready. (Some states require proof that you live in the state, others don't; You'll want to check on this beforehand.) The vaccine is free of charge to all people living in the U.S., but certain providers may ask you to bring your health insurance card if you have one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Breathing techniques might also help ease any anxiety. "Mind-body interventions are a great way to decrease the pain and anxiety of getting a vaccination,"says David C. Leopold, M.D., internal medicine physician and medical director of Hackensack Meridian Integrative Health & Medicine in New Jersey. "Simply focus on your breath as it goes in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathe a little bit slower as you exhale to maximize the benefit." (Or try this 2-minute breathing exercise to lower stress.)

Avoid Pain Relievers Beforehand

Common COVID-19 vaccine side effects include fatigue, headaches, chills, and nausea. Your instinct might be to take something before your appointment to prevent these side effects, but the CDC doesn't recommend doesn't recommend taking a pain reliever or antihistamine prior to getting the COVID-19 shot.

That's because experts aren't sure how over-the-counter pain relievers (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen) might affect your body's response to the vaccine, according to the CDC. The COVID-19 vaccine works by tricking your cells into thinking they've been infected with COVID-19, which causes your body to mount an immune response and develop antibodies against the virus. Some research on mice published in the Journal of Virology shows that taking a pain reliever might reduce the production of antibodies, which are important in blocking the virus from infecting cells. While it's unclear exactly how painkillers might affect the vaccine response in humans, the CDC's recommendation is still to steer clear of popping one before your vaccine appointment. (Related: How Effective Is the COVID-19 Vaccine?)

As for supplements, such as vitamins C or D, Dr. Leopold says he wouldn't recommend taking any type of natural or herbal supplement prior to vaccination either. "Any muting of the response to the vaccine wouldn't be desirable and there's no data to support the safety of using them, " he says. (Related: Stop Trying to "Boost" Your Immune System)

Hydrate

What you should load up on before your appointment is water. "I tell all of my patients to properly hydrate prior to their COVID-19 vaccine," says Dana Cohen, M.D., integrative doctor and water health and hydration advisor to water brand Essentia. "Post-vaccine symptoms vary from person to person, but it's important to err on the side of caution and hydrate before and after receiving the vaccine, so that you're feeling the best you can going into it and as your body's immune response kicks in. Being optimally hydrated is essential for an effective vaccine response and may help with side effects." (Related: You Might Need a Third Dose of the COVID-19 Vaccine)

As a general rule, you should always aim to drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day, says Dr. Cohen. "However, going into your vaccine appointment, you should aim to drink 10 to 20 percent more water that day," she says. "I believe a good rule of thumb is to drink it over an eight hour window before your appointment. However, if your appointment is first thing in the morning, then front load your water by drinking at least 20 ounces beforehand and hydrate well the day before." And you should plan to keep that up after your appointment, too. "It is also important to hydrate immediately after and up to two days after your vaccine in order to help ameliorate some of the side effects and especially if you develop a fever," says Dr. Cohen.

Go In with a Strategy

It might seem farfetched, but making a face while you receive a vaccine might make it hurt less. A small University of California, Irvine study suggested that making certain facial expressions can actually blunt the pain of a needle's injection compared to keeping a neutral face while receiving the shot. Participants who made a Duchenne smile — a big, tooth-baring grin that creates crinkles by your eyes — and those who made a grimace reported that the experience hurt about half as much as a group that kept a neutral expression. The researchers said that making either expression — both of which involve baring teeth, activating eye muscles, and lifting cheeks — significantly blunt the stressful physiological response by lowering your heart rate. It might feel silly but, hey, it just might work (and it's free).

Common side-effects after getting the COVID-19 vaccination include soreness, redness, swelling, or muscle pain in the area around the shot. With that in mind, you might want to receive the shot in your non-dominant arm so that your daily life might be less impacted the following day. Whichever arm you go with, you don't want to completely refrain from moving it around after your appointment, though. Moving the arm where you received the shot might help reduce pain, according to the CDC.

Prep for Minor Side Effects

As mentioned, you might experience fatigue, headaches, chills, or nausea after the vaccine, although many people don't experience any of those. (Some people feel lousy enough to take a day off from work, while others feel normal enough to go about their day and even work out.) With that in mind, you might not want to make any plans that'll prevent you from chilling out in the 24 hours after your appointment. It might be helpful to stock up on ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin before your appointment; with your doctor's okay, it's fine to take one for minor discomfort after you've received the vaccine, according to the CDC.

If you're concerned about a potential allergic reaction (which is extremely rare, FTR), just know that all vaccinations sites are required to have healthcare pros trained and qualified to recognize anaphylaxis as well as administer epinephrine (and mass-vaccination sites are required to have epinephrine on-hand as well), according to the CDC. They'll also ask you to hang around for 15 to 30 minutes after you've received the vaccine, just in case. (That said, it can't hurt to talk to your doc ahead of time, BYO epinephrine, and give your vaccinator a heads up if you have any allergies.)

You're all set to head to your vax appointment fully prepared. Rest assured that the above tips can help make the experience as painless (literally and figuratively) as possible.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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