Why the Flu Shot Hurts—Plus, What You Can Do to Relieve the Pain
As important as it is to get a flu shot every year, it often hurts to do so. "The flu shot is a shot in which a part of the flu virus, a foreign particle, is injected into the muscle in the upper arm to stimulate an immune response," explains Dr. Tatyana Morton, a CareMount Medical Internist. "It hurts because an immune response is triggered and various types of immune cells and released proteins congregate in the affected area, causing it to feel sore."
And while the flu shot might not be painful for some, Dr. Evelyn Darius, a physician with virtual health platform PlushCare, says it may cause others to develop a reaction at the injection site. "Injection site reactions may present with redness, swelling, or soreness," she says. "However, mild to moderate local reactions are more common with the high-dose inactivated influenza vaccine (Fluzone High-Dose) than the standard-dose vaccine." Curious about how you can relieve the pain from a flu shot faster, or possibly prevent it ahead of time? We asked Dr. Darius, Dr. Morton, and Dr. Carl Cameron, Chief Medical Officer at MVP Health Care to share their advice, and this is what they had to say.
Take an analgesic (or two).
If you're prone to getting a sore arm after receiving a flu shot, Dr. Morton recommends taking an ibuprofen two hours prior to your appointment. "You can also use ibuprofen or a similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug after having the shot, as long as it's not contraindicated for other reasons, for a couple of days to relieve the pain and inflammation at the injection site," she says.
Since our muscles tense up when we're feeling anxious, Dr. Darius says it's important to stay calm before and while you get a flu shot. "Although the injection only takes a few seconds, relaxing mentally and physically can make a difference in the perception of pain," she explains. Dr. Cameron agrees and further recommends keeping your arm loose and relaxed while taking deep breathes to help reduce future pain.
Get your blood flowing.
If you aren't moving your arm around after receiving a flu shot, expect more soreness. "Moving your arm around right after the injection helps get your blood flowing, which will help spread the vaccine away from the injection site and possibly reduce some of the pain," Dr. Cameron explains.
Apply a cool compress.
Just as you would nurse a bruise or any other acute injury with an ice pack, you can apply a cool compress intermittently to your arm to help with pain and swelling, notes Dr. Darius. "However, it's important to rotate the ice packs to avoid extreme temperatures that might cause a burn," she says.
Along with ensuring you get vaccinated in time for the cold weather season (aim to get your flu shot in October), Dr. Cameron says making a plan can help ease your anxiety—and healing process. "This year—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—it's important to plan for getting the flu shot," he says. "Beyond the convenience that comes with scheduling an appointment, a plan provides you with the foresight to schedule your shot on a day when you might have a couple of days to recover, if you need it."