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COVID-19 vaccines - what to expect

COVID-19 vaccines are used to prepare the body's immune system to protect against COVID-19. Adults and children ages 6 months and older should get the COVID-19 vaccination.

Learn what to expect before and after you are vaccinated for COVID-19.

BEFORE YOU GET THE VACCINE

There are several ways to sign up for a vaccine:

  • Ask your health care provider, pharmacist, or community health center if they provide vaccines.
  • Check your local pharmacy's website or call the pharmacy to see if vaccination appointments are available.
  • Contact your state or local health department to find additional vaccination locations in the area.
  • Check the CDC Vaccines.gov to find out where to get a vaccine in your area.
  • Text your ZIP code to 438829 or call 1-800-232-0233 to find vaccine locations near you in the United States.
  • The CDC's Bridge Access Program provides free COVID-19 vaccines to adults who don't have health insurance and to adults who have insurance that does not cover all the cost of the vaccine.

If you take any medicines, you should keep taking them as you usually do. If you take medicines that affect the immune system, talk with your provider to find out if getting the COVID-19 vaccine will work or cause any problems for you.

You should not take over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen to help prevent side effects before you get the vaccine. It is not known if these medicines will affect how well the vaccine works. However, if you take these medicines regularly for other reasons, you can take them as you always do.

You should also not take antihistamines to help prevent an allergic reaction before you get the vaccine.

If you have any questions about your medicines, ask your provider or the vaccine provider.

DURING YOUR VACCINE APPOINTMENT

After you get your vaccine, you may be asked to wait at the vaccination site for 15 minutes to make sure you do not have a severe allergic reaction to the shot (this is very rare). If you have had a previous severe allergic reaction or if you have had an immediate reaction to immunizations in the past, you may need to wait for 30 minutes as a precaution. Vaccination sites are equipped to provide immediate care for severe allergic reactions and call for emergency medical care.

At your appointment, should receive a vaccination card that tells you what vaccine you received and the date and location you received it. Be sure to keep this card if needed for future use.

VACCINE SIDE EFFECTS

While COVID-19 vaccines will not make you sick with COVID-19, they may cause certain side effects and flu-like symptoms. This is normal. These symptoms are a sign that your body is making antibodies against the virus.

Common side effects include:

  • Pain, redness, and swelling on the arm where you got the shot
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Some people get a red, itchy, swollen, painful rash in the arm where they got the shot. This is known as "COVID arm." This can occur days after getting the first shot. You should still get your second shot if you got a 2-dose vaccine. You can ask to have it in the other arm.

Arm Rash After COVID-19 Vaccination

To help relieve side effects, you should:

  • Move the arm where you got the shot often during the day
  • Apply a clean, cool washcloth to ease swelling and discomfort
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Dress lightly if you have a fever

Note that the side effects from the second dose may be more intense than those from the first shot. Symptoms from the shot may make you feel bad enough that you need to take time off from work or daily activities, but they should go away within a few days. Even if you do have side effects, it is still important to get the second shot. The risks of any side effects from the vaccine are far less dangerous than the potential for serious illness or death from COVID-19.

You may be instructed by the vaccine provider that you can take acetaminophen or another OTC medicine such as ibuprofen or aspirin to help relieve any vaccine side effects. Or, talk with your provider about taking OTC medicine if you are not sure.

If symptoms do not go away in a few days, or if you have any concerns, you should contact your provider.

When to Call the Doctor

Contact your provider if you have any questions or concerns about COVID-19 vaccines.

In rare cases, people have had severe and non-severe allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines. If you have a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) after getting the first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, you should not get the second shot. Talk with your provider to see if there are other options.

If you think you are having a severe reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine after leaving the vaccination site, you should call 911 or the local emergency number right away. Symptoms of severe allergic reaction appearing in the first 4 hours after receiving the vaccine include:

  • Difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, or high-pitched breathing sounds
  • Swelling of the face, eyes, tongue, or throat
  • Hives, itchiness, redness of the skin
  • Lowering of blood pressure

Symptoms of severe reactions may also include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest discomfort or tightness
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Palpitations
  • Slurred speech
  • Unconsciousness

If you notice any unusual or concerning symptoms, seek medical care right away.

Rare cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the outer lining of the heart) have been reported in children and teens ages 5 years and older after getting the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine.

This reaction has tended to occur more often in male adolescents and young adults ages 12 to 39 years.

  • It occurs more often after the second dose, most often within 7 days after vaccination. Studies show that this rare risk may be reduced by waiting 8 weeks between the first and second dose.
  • With proper care and rest, most people who had the reaction got better quickly without any lasting effects.
  • For people who had this rare reaction, it is important to talk with a cardiologist (heart doctor) about how and when to return to exercise and sports.

Symptoms of myocarditis and pericarditis include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast-beating heart, fluttering, or pounding heart

If your child or teenager has any of these symptoms, get medical help right away.

All these associations are so rare that they should not cause hesitation in receiving any of these vaccines.

CDC recommends that people may still get vaccinated if they have a history of:

  • Severe allergic reactions NOT related to vaccines or injectable medicines -- such as food, pet, venom, environmental, or latex allergies
  • Allergies to oral medicines or a family history of severe allergic reactions

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Allergic reactions after COVID-19 vaccination. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/allergic-reaction.html. Updated July 20, 2022. Accessed September 23, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Getting your COVID-19 vaccine. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/expect.html. Updated September 29, 2023. Accessed October 2, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/stay-up-to-date.html. Updated September 15, 2023. Accessed September 19, 2023.

Review Date 2/22/2023

Updated by: Frank D. Brodkey, MD, FCCM, Associate Professor, Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, WI. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 10/02/23.

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