Want to get a COVID-19 vaccine but have a needle phobia? There’s help, experts say

For many Canadians, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout signifies a light at the end of an isolating tunnel — except for those with a true phobia of needles.

Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist, science communicator and digital media producer based in Toronto, understands the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines better than most, but that doesn’t change the terror of needles she’s had since she was 12.

“Every time in the past I’ve had to get a needle, I’ve fainted. It was really traumatic and sudden and overwhelming and scary,” Yammine said.

She isn’t alone. She isn’t alone. According to Rebecca Pillai Riddell, a professor of child psychology, 25 per cent of adults are afraid of needles, and five per cent of people have a needle-related phobia.

Samantha Yammine is a neuroscientist and science communicator who raises awareness about vaccinations on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. (Submitted by Samantha Yammine)

Phobias more than just fear

According to Pillai Riddell, who is also a co-creator of the Sick Kids Pain Hub, phobias impair people’s lives and how they function. It isn’t just being scared — it’s being scared enough to make decisions that can make life more difficult.

Needle phobias typically develop in early childhood. They could stem from a bad experience with injections, but biological and social factors also play a role.

Pillai Riddell said this fear can be a barrier to accessing health care. Research suggests that five to 10 per cent of people aren’t getting vaccinated because of fear of needles.

“You don’t want people avoiding vaccines. You don’t want people avoiding preventative care and doctors and nurses and health professionals in general,” she said.

Julianne Mundle, an author based in Toronto, has been fearful of needles her entire life.

“I was that child that would get the letter from school saying, ‘If your child doesn’t get the vaccine, they will be suspended,'” Mundle said. Her friend booked her COVID-19 vaccination for her, and her partner went to her appointment to support her.

Julianne Mundle, a Toronto-based author, has had a needle phobia since she was a child. (Submitted by Julianne Mundle)

Dr. Anna Taddio, a pharmacy professor at Toronto’s York University and a specialist in pain management, said it’s critical to address needle fear and treat needle-related pain in children. Addressing it can prevent long-term consequences of untreated pain in children, such as lifelong needle phobias.

“The more we learn about pain, the more we see that there are long-term consequences of not doing anything about it. So we want to prevent that, is really the bottom line.”

Taddio is doing this with something called the Comfort, Ask, Relax, Distract (CARD) system.

CARD system used in Ontario

It’s a method used across Ontario to reduce pain, fear and fainting during vaccination. 

Children and adults are encouraged to choose their own coping strategies during vaccination by selecting a letter of the CARD system. For example, they can bring a comfort item, ask questions about the vaccine, take deep breaths or distract themselves with a video game.

“This is an opportunity for us to try to teach people how to cope with anxiety. So if more people know about this, then more people can use this and it can benefit people more broadly,” Taddio said.

Although it was first developed to improve the vaccination experience at school, the method is just as effective in reducing pain and fear for adults during COVID-19 immunization.

But for those with severe needle phobias, Taddio recommends speaking with a mental health expert to address the root cause and become desensitized to the fear.

Vaccination can be positive experience, expert says

Yammine worked with her therapist to reduce her anxiety and successfully received her first dose of the vaccine at an accessibility clinic in Toronto. By having all of her requests accommodated and respected, her vaccination was a positive experience.

“This experience that I had was completely reaffirming that a lot of my discomfort in health-care settings has to do with the way care is delivered, and when care is delivered in a way that I’m comfortable with, in a way that I’ve consented to, I felt fine,” Yammine said.

“Our society has to be better at delivering care in just and equitable ways that factor in people’s needs.”

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