What is vasovagal response, you might ask? You're not alone if you've never heard of this medical reaction. Though it's relatively common, it's rarely discussed candidly in public. After it happened to me, I wanted to change that.
My First Vasovagal Response
I never liked shots. As a little kid, I used to "howl all the way home" after getting one, according to my mom. Of course, I later learned how important they are, but that still didn't mean I looked forward to them. And I never expected that I would black out while getting one.
I was 16 years old and sitting on the doctor's table as I waited to get my vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. My mom was casually reading a magazine while the nurse prepared the syringe. Even though I was silent, my quivering legs gave away my anxiety.
I knew how crucial this shot was. Clearly, the benefit of reducing the risk of cervical cancer outweighed the downside of brief, inconsequential pain. I tried to remind myself of that as the nurse encouraged me to look away during the injection. I didn't look away.
The moment the needle went into my arm, I lost consciousness. Everything went black. I heard my mom's faraway voice yelling my name in the darkness. Then, I opened my eyes to find both her and the nurse on top of me. I was flat on my back on the table.
"What happened?" I asked, blinking at the fluorescent lights above me.
"You passed out," my mom said breathlessly.
I began laughing, thinking it was a joke. But I realized I couldn't pull myself up. The nurse told me to stay put as she got something to re-energize me. I wondered what was wrong. Why did I lose control of my body while trying to protect it? Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long for an answer.
The nurse returned with a sickly-sweet orange medicine for me to drink, then told my mom, "I think she had a vasovagal response."
"Oh," my mom said in a surprisingly unsurprised tone. "Your dad has the same thing. He always has to lie down when he gets a shot because of it."
It took me about a half hour before I could finally sit up again.
What is vasovagal response?
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Vasovagal response, also known as vasovagal syncope, is fainting when your body reacts to certain triggers. These triggers include things like the sight of blood or the feeling of emotional distress. In my case, it was a shot.
The vasovagal response trigger causes your heart rate and blood pressure to drop quickly, which leads to reduced blood flow to your brain. Then you briefly lose consciousness. Vasovagal response is typically harmless and requires no special treatment, but obviously you do run the risk of injuring yourself. I'm fortunate that didn't happen to me.
How common is fainting from vaccines?
Clearly I'm not the only one who's fainted after getting a shot. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has received reports of people fainting after getting nearly every vaccine out there. Scientists aren't totally sure why some people have vasovagal response after being vaccinated, but they're pretty sure it's due to the injection process, not the vaccine itself.
Approximately 3 percent of men and 3.5 percent of women have reported fainting at some point in their lives, according to the CDC; however, it's not known exactly how many people faint right after getting a shot because fainting is difficult to study using medical records. Not to mention plenty of fainting responses go unreported. (I didn't report mine.)
Unfortunately, that experience with vasovagal response was not an isolated one for me. I can always feel myself "slipping away" whenever I get a shot or blood test now, a whole decade later. Sometimes it happens during a routine gynecological exam. One time it even happened when I got intense eye drops before eye surgery. Fortunately, I know how to manage it now.
How to Manage Vasovagal Response
I always inform my doctor ahead of time that I have vasovagal response before I have to do any medical procedure involving needles — or any other particularly intense tools. Then I lie flat on my back ahead of time and pointedly look away from what's happening — a helpful trick my dad taught me. I also take my sweet time sitting back up, even if it takes 15 minutes or so to recover. Fortunately, most of my doctors have been understanding and well-prepared for patients like me.
If you have vasovagal response, you know firsthand that it can seem pretty embarrassing at first. But it's a totally normal reaction, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Don't be afraid to tell your doctor if you ever suspect one might come on during a procedure — you don't want to risk injuring yourself if you do end up fainting! And don't be shy to tell your family, friends, or other people you care about. You might be surprised to learn who else has it.