What Happens When You Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

It's not scary and it's another tool that can help us fight the coronavirus
Nurse givng a covid vaccine to patient

By now, you’ve seen friends and loved ones post pictures of their COVID-19 vaccination cards on social media. Those posts have either made you excited, or you still might be a little uneasy because you don’t know what to expect. The thing about worry is that you can put your mind at ease when you do some research and talk to others about their experiences.

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We had a conversation with pulmonary medicine specialist Jafar Abunasser, MD, about his experience with getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Keep reading to find out what he has to say because it just might help you get in the right state of mind for vaccination day.

Should you do anything to prepare for your COVID-19 shot?

If you’re wondering if you should take a pain reliever or anything else before your vaccination, Dr. Abunasser advises against it.

“A few people have asked, ‘Do you have to pre-medicate to prevent allergies or fevers?’ The answer to that is no. It’s no different than any other vaccine. You don’t prepare for the side effects. Instead, you would monitor for them after you’ve been vaccinated,” he says.

But what you can do is talk to your doctor about any possible interactions or allergies in advance.

“If you’re scheduled to get your first dose, there’s nothing that you need to do beforehand, but there are some precautions that you should take with any injection,” he says.

For example, if you’re taking blood thinners, you should tell your healthcare provider that you’re going to be getting an injection so you can do what’s necessary to avoid extra bleeding from the needle.

“Review your medications and health conditions with your primary care physician to make sure that they’re not going to interfere with your ability to get an injection,” he says.

As for allergies, Dr. Abunasser says they should not prevent you from getting vaccinated for COVID-19, but if you’re not certain about being allergic to ingredients in Pfizer BioNTech’s, Moderna’s or Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines, you can talk to your doctor, immunologist or allergist.

“As far as allergies are concerned, hay fever or a peanut allergy are not contraindications to getting the vaccine,” he says. “Now, I will always tell someone who has an immunologist to talk about their concerns with their doctor since they know your individual case and can tell from your records or tests what you’re actually allergic to. They can then check to see if there are any components in the vaccine that overlap with that.”

If you’ve had an anaphylactic reaction to vaccines before, Dr. Abunasser doesn’t recommend getting vaccinated right now.

What to expect at your vaccine appointment

Dr. Abunasser was among the first group of doctors to receive the vaccine when it was made available to frontline workers. He says the process took less than 30 minutes. In his case, he received a notification to schedule an appointment. He did so and filled out a vaccine questionnaire that was similar to the one that you fill out before getting a flu shot. When he arrived for his COVID-19 vaccination, he signed in and got his shot.

“The vaccine takes all of 20 seconds to administer. Once you get the shot, they give you a card that has the date and the type of vaccine that you received — Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson on it. Then, they use a timer to monitor you for at least 15 minutes afterward just in case you were to have that rare allergic reaction while you’re there. So, it’s a fairly seamless process,” says Dr. Abunasser.

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Dr. Abunasser experienced the vaccination process from the healthcare provider side. Here’s what your experience might be like.

  • Before you go, you should receive a call or email to confirm your appointment. Be sure to find out what you’ll need to bring with you, (whether it be your ID or health insurance card).
  • Wear a mask and social distance as you’re waiting for your turn.
  • When you check in, you’ll get an information sheet about the vaccine you’ll recieve. This sheet will explain the benefits and possible risks of the vaccine. It might be a paper copy or you might be asked to review a digital version.
  • After your shot, you’ll be monitored for 15 to 30 minutes. The average time is 15 minutes, but if you have a history of allergic reactions to other vaccines or injectable medications and have experienced anaphylaxis, you’ll be monitored for 30 minutes. Anaphylaxis usually occurs within 30 minutes of exposure.
  • Check out the V-safe app. You can use V-safe to report any side effects after your vaccination to the CDC. The app will also remind you when it’s time to get your second dose of a COVID vaccine. However, this app can’t be used to schedule appointments or to access your vaccination card.

How long does it take for a COVID vaccine to work?

It takes about two weeks for your body to build up protection against the virus that causes COVID-19. While it’s great to start the series, you need to get the second shot so the vaccine can work as intended. You are not considered fully vaccinated until it’s been at least two weeks after the second dose of a two-dose vaccine (Moderna and Pfizer) or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson).

How to reduce side effects of the COVID vaccine

Dr. Abunasser says that a sore arm is pretty common and the soreness comes from the needle, not the actual vaccine. The soreness should go away in about a day or so. As for side effects of the vaccine, he states that some people have experienced headaches, fatigue, muscle aches or low-grade fevers.

“While these symptoms are obviously a nuisance to have, they’re actually good news because they indicate that your immune system is working. They’re signs that your immune system is activated and is producing antibodies. That’s a good thing to know.”

The CDC lists the following as common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccination:

On the arm where you got the shot:

  • Pain.
  • Swelling.

Throughout the rest of your body:

  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Tiredness.
  • Headache.

For pain or discomfort, the CDC recommends asking your doctor about over-the-counter treatment options. Contact your doctor if:

  • The redness or tenderness where you got the shot increases after 24 hours.
  • Your side effects are worrying you or do not seem to be going away after a few days.

To reduce discomfort from fever, the CDC recommends:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Dressing lightly.

And to help with the pain or swelling in your arm from the injection:

  • Apply a clean, cool, wet washcloth over the area.
  • Use or exercise your arm.

For the most part, you can go about your day as you normally would after your COVID-19 vaccination. But if you start to feel the effects of it, there’s nothing wrong with a little rest and self-care.

Should you get the second dose if you test positive for COVID-19 after the first dose?

If you get the first dose, only to test positive days later, Dr. Abunasser says this shouldn’t keep you from getting the second dose. He says that you should just monitor your symptoms and quarantine accordingly. If your symptoms resolve before your next dose, which will be three or four weeks after the first, you can get the second injection.

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The only cases where you’d want to skip the second dose would be if you had an allergic reaction to the first dose or if you did get sick with COVID-19 and received an infusion of a monoclonal antibody drug due to being at high risk or having a chronic medical condition (for example, Regeneron’s antibody cocktail REGN-COV2 of the monoclonal antibodies casirivimab and imdevimab, or bamlanivumab). If you were put on an antibody regimen, Dr. Abunasser recommends postponing the second dose for about three months (90 days).

Yes, you can still transmit COVID-19 to others even if you are vaccinated

Getting the vaccine does not mean that you’re automatically invincible. It takes time for the vaccine to take effect, so Dr. Abunasser stresses the importance of still practicing the protocols that have kept many of us safe during the pandemic.

“After the first dose, it takes about a week for you to develop some antibody response, and you do get a partial immune response to the first dose,” he says. “So that is definitely good news. By no means does it mean complete immunity. The vaccine does provide some protection, but even after the two doses, it gives you about an 85% to 95% level of protection. Although you may be protected we can’t tell if you are still at risk of being an asymptomatic carrier and have the ability to carry the virus and spread the virus to others. So you can’t assume that just because you get the vaccine that you are both protected and no longer capable of carrying the virus asymptomatically and spreading it to others.”

Dr. Abunasser says that when the vaccines were tested, they were shown to protect you from getting the disease itself.

“They showed that with the two-dose vaccine regimen, about 95% of the population would develop immunity that would protect them from getting sick if exposed to the virus. However, that doesn’t mean that an immune person can’t carry the virus if they’re exposed to it. Instead, it just means you’re much less likely to get sick or develop symptoms. We don’t know if getting immunity through vaccination also prevents you from being able to asymptomatically carry the virus and shed it, even if you, yourself, are protected.”

He adds that while both vaccines were shown to be very effective, protecting up to 95% of those who received them, there’s no way for us to tell who the other 5% will be. In other words, we don’t know who will get the vaccine and not be a “responder,” and still be at risk for contracting COVID-19.

“Because of those concerns, we have to realize that while the vaccines are very effective and valuable, they represent one facet of our response and work best when coupled with the preventative public health measures we’re already taking.”

To get through this, we have to work together

Since there still is a little bit of uncertainty regarding how everything works, Dr. Abunasser stresses the importance of remaining vigilant about stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“Until we get this whole pandemic contained, we still have to follow the same recommendations — the same procedures for physical distancing, universal masking and avoiding indoor gatherings or large numbers of people until community spread is at a level that will allow us to return to normal. The vaccine is just one tool in our kit to fight the pandemic. By no means is it complete, nor is it a license to give up on the other tools that we have.”

For us to ever reach herd immunity, about 50% to 80% of the population needs to be vaccinated. Dr. Abunasser is hopeful and believes that we will get there.

“I think it’s exciting and the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines really caught us all by surprise in a really good way. We’ve dealt with pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks in the past and if you look throughout history, the way we contained and controlled pandemics was by social distancing, hand washing and universal masking. Eventually, we eradicated many outbreaks with a mass national vaccination program and that’s where we are now. We need to meet this challenge head-on. We can handle it and we can get through this.”

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