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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. These vaccines are a vital tool to help stop the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.


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. Find out which pharmacies are participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.
  • Contact your state or local health department to find additional vaccination locations in the area.
  • Check the CDC VaccineFinder 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.

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 health care 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 health care provider or the vaccine provider.


After you get your vaccine, you will 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.


While COVID-19 vaccines will not make you sick, 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

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 doctor 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 health care 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.


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 June 7, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Getting your COVID-19 vaccine. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/expect.html. Updated May 24, 2023. Accessed June 7, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Possible side effects after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/expect/after.html. Updated May 5, 2023. Accessed June 7, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines including boosters. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/stay-up-to-date.html. Updated June 7, 2023. Accessed June 7, 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 06/07/23.

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