UPDATE: Since this article was published, the FDA cleared an additional vaccine option, a single-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson. Learn more here.
COVID-19 vaccine doses are rolling out worldwide, and President Joe Biden said he expects doses to be widely available in America by the end of July. While you wait your turn, you may have questions, like “What do I need to bring to the appointment?”, “Do I need to call my doctor first?”, and “Will I feel sick afterward?”
For starters, now is generally a time to get excited, not nervous. Severe allergic reactions to the vaccine are exceedingly rare, say experts, and the very slight risk is worth it. Side effects are also typically brief, and it’s possible you won’t experience any.
“For the majority of people who get symptoms, they’re mild and last usually no more than a day,” says Eric Sachinwalla, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. “This is versus COVID, which we know causes many people to get sick for days, weeks, potentially months.”
If you have any concerns, call your doctor. Medical professionals want you to get the vaccine as soon as it’s available to you — and they want to help you to feel comfortable doing so. Here’s how else you can prepare, along with what to expect during and after your vaccine appointment.
Before your vaccination appointment
Do some research.
Unless you have questions, you don’t need to check in with your doctor before setting up a vaccination appointment. But if you have underlying medical conditions, a history of severe allergies, or are pregnant, you may want to discuss the decision. While most people 16 years and older are encouraged to get the vaccine, there are some exceptions. If you’re not sure if you qualify, have a conversation with your doctor.
Learning more about the vaccines may also help ease anxiety. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines. This type of vaccine teaches our cells how to make a protein, or a piece of a protein, that triggers our immune system to create antibodies if we become exposed to the actual virus. It’s impossible for these vaccines to cause an actual COVID-19 infection.
“An mRNA vaccine acts as the instructions that tell your cells to make just one protein from a virus,” says Zachary Klase, an associate professor in the department of pharmacology and physiology at Drexel University College of Medicine. “This is like pulling one word out of an entire book — it doesn’t provide enough information for the vaccine to re-create the entire virus.” For a full vaccine explainer, click here.
» READ MORE: Who should and shouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine
Schedule your appointment as soon as possible, ideally with a rest day afterward.
Side effects are a normal part of getting vaccinated. Because symptoms like fatigue and headache may occur, you’d be wise not to schedule your vaccine right before, say, a job interview.
“For the vast majority of people, they’re not severe enough that they can’t do their daily activities, but it may be significant enough that you can’t go to work,” says Sachinwalla. “I wouldn’t let this be an impediment to getting vaccinated. If there’s a date that’s an option, get the vaccine, but if you have the ability to schedule, pick a day where you don’t have anything critical the next day.”
If you do experience side effects, they’re likely to emerge in the hours or day following your vaccination and usually go away within a day or two. (More below on what to expect post-vaccine.)
Don’t schedule within 14 days of any other vaccine.
CDC guidance says to allow for two weeks between getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and another illness, like the flu or shingles. “The spacing of vaccines is nothing new to COVID,” says Joseph Teel, an associate professor of Clinical Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Pennsylvania. “If your body has just spent its energy reacting to a different vaccine, we want to give your body a little bit of time to get back to its routine state.”
Dress in layers.
You may want to celebrate by wearing your favorite sweater. Go for it. Just make sure you have a T-shirt underneath. The person administering your vaccine needs to be able to easily access your upper arm. Layering can also help you comfortably withstand potential wait times, and you should make sure you’re ready for any environment, says Teel.
If you have access to both a surgical mask, which goes on the bottom, and a cloth mask, which goes on top, double-masking can improve your protection, according to new CDC guidance. The most important factor, however, is wearing a mask that fits you well, with no gaps around your face. Masks are required, and you should stay six feet away from others when you arrive, too. “In general there have been very few national cases of [COVID-19] transmission in doctor’s settings,” says Teel. “As long as everyone’s doing a good job with social distancing, you should feel comfortable going to get the vaccine.”
» READ MORE: How to layer your masks when you're double masking
Don’t take Tylenol or ibuprofen before your appointment.
There’s no need to take an over-the-counter medicine for the purpose of preventing side effects. “There’s a theoretical concern that anti-inflammatories, like Tylenol or ibuprofen, might inhibit the response that your body has to the vaccine because inflammation is part of your body’s immune response,” says Sachinwalla. “It’s not going to completely invalidate your vaccine, but avoid it if you can.” You can take over-the-counter medications post-vaccination, however, to relieve any side effects. But don’t use them unless you need them, says Sachinwalla.
If you’re feeling sick the day of vaccination, reschedule.
Even getting the vaccine is not worth the potential risk of spreading COVID-19. It’s OK if you have an injury, but if you’re feeling ill, reschedule. “If you sprained your ankle, I don’t think that’s a contraindication, but if you have a ‘cold’, part of it is that you don’t want to potentially spread anything to anyone else,” says Sachinwalla. “And it’ll be harder to interpret side effects afterwards.”
What to expect at your vaccine appointment
Bring photo ID.
Along with a mask, show up with a photo ID. Bring your insurance card if you have insurance, too. You won’t have to pay anything out of pocket, but your insurance may be billed.
Your appointment could take up to an hour.
Appointment processes differ from place to place, but getting registered is usually the first step. Come prepared to answer questions about your allergy history. Some places may also take your temperature. After checking in, you’ll wait in line or head straight to a nurse or other medical provider giving vaccines. The actual shot takes just a few seconds. Afterward, you’ll sit in a waiting area for 15 or 30 minutes, depending on your allergy history. Medical professionals will be on hand to make sure you’re feeling OK. You’ll receive a vaccination card before leaving that shows the date and type of vaccine you received. “In total, it could be an hour-long process,” says Teel.
Severe allergic reactions are exceedingly rare, says the CDC.
Experts say that given that these reactions are easily treated (in most cases with an EpiPen or similar device containing epinephrine), the vaccines are worth the very slight risk. It may help to consider the alternative, getting COVID-19, which can potentially bring long-lasting, and even fatal consequences.
Make sure you know when you’re getting your second dose before you leave.
Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are two-dose series. You may have scheduled both appointments at once. If that wasn’t an option, schedule your second appointment before heading home from your first when possible.
Second appointments should be set up as close to the recommended three-week (Pfizer-BioNTech) or one-month (Moderna) interval as possible, but there is some wiggle room.
Scheduling a second dose earlier than the recommended intervals isn’t recommended, but if you have to schedule a little later, don’t panic. “The idea here is that the clinical trials were set up for three and four weeks,” says Klase, pointing out that we don’t yet have data to show total vaccine effectiveness outside of these windows. “But we know from the immunological data that this really is a vaccine you need two doses of to get your immune system up to speed.”
The first dose will offer some protection. But you need the second dose to receive the roughly 95% protection that the vaccines achieved in clinical trials. Even if you must schedule a second dose two weeks later than recommended, it’s better than forgoing it all together. And while there’s no data yet to prove it, the hope is that your body will produce a similar immune response regardless, says Klase.
Don’t share your vaccination card on social media.
Yay, you did it. You’re vaccinated! You’re encouraged to to share your excitement through social media, since positive messaging can inspire others to get vaccinated. Just don’t include your vaccination card in any photos, warns the Better Business Bureau. Since your card includes personal information, posting it in photos may mean giving away valuable information for anyone to use.
Side effects are normal.
Common side effects include pain and swelling around the arm, a result of inflammation around the site of injection. The CDC recommends applying a clean, cool, wet washcloth over the area to alleviate achiness and to exercise your arm, which will help prevent your muscle from getting stiff. Other common side effects include fever, chills, fatigue, and headache. Be mindful of staying hydrated and take an over-the-counter medicine if needed. Ibuprofen, aspirin, antihistamines, and acetaminophen are all OK to take post-vaccine, says the CDC.
You should still get the second shot if you have side effects after the first.
Unless a vaccination provider or your doctor tells you otherwise, get the second dose.
Side effects may be worse after your second dose.
“There seems to be potential for increased side effects with the second vaccine,” says Teel. “With the second dose, your body has seen the vaccine, and the protein [it contains], one time already, and so your body has a memory and capacity to respond a little more vigorously.”
Some people have compared the day after the second dose to having the flu for a day. Yes, that’s annoying, but look at side effects as a good thing, experts say. They’re a sign that your body is reacting properly to the vaccine. “Side effects are actually more common in people under the age of 55, which might be indicative of younger people having more robust immune responses,” says Sachinwalla.
Not feeling side effects? That’s OK, too.
“I had a sore arm but no other symptoms the following day,” says Teel. “That doesn’t mean I had a bad batch or it didn’t work. Different individuals have different responses.”
If you’re feeling bad beyond three days, call your doctor.
Most people only experience post-vaccine symptoms for 24 to 48 hours, says Sachinwalla. If you’re hitting the four-day mark, or you’re experiencing any signs of allergic reaction, like swelling of your lips or face, call your doctor.
Coughing or feeling short of breath? Those aren’t side effects of the vaccine.
There’s some, but not complete, overlap between COVID-19 symptoms and vaccine side effects. Symptoms that don’t match up are also a signal to call your doctor. “Shortness of breath, cough, loss of smell or taste — if you have any of those, that’s not from the vaccine,” says Sachinwalla. “But fever, body aches, headache — that could be from the vaccine or an infection.”
Protection won’t be immediate.
It takes time for your body to build protection after vaccination, says the CDC, and you may not reach full protection until a week or two after your second shot.
Even after vaccination, you should still wear a mask, avoid crowds, and practice social distancing.
It’s important to continue using the preventative tools we’ve been using since the start until we learn more about how the vaccines work in real-world conditions, says the CDC. Yes, the vaccines are safe, highly effective, and crucial for halting this pandemic. But the vaccines aren’t 100% effective, and it’s also possible that you could still carry the virus and give it to others. Whether or not vaccinated individuals could be silent carriers is still being researched. Exact timing on when we’ll return to some normalcy isn’t certain. But experts estimate that around 70% of the population — more than 200 million people — in the United States would need to gain immunity, either from coronavirus infection or vaccination, for the pandemic to end.