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Breakthrough infections: Can you still get COVID after getting vaccinated?

While the three COVID-19 vaccines we have are incredibly effective, there is no vaccine that provides 100% protection against the virus. People who are fully or partially vaccinated can still become infected by the novel coronavirus, in what is called a breakthrough infection. What can you expect if you’re one of them?

Breakthrough COVID-19 infections

The important thing to remember is that your infection will be far less severe than that experienced by unvaccinated people. For example, says Mallory Shillinger, D.O., a Piedmont primary care physician, vaccinated people often have “a fever for one or two days, along with fatigue, a sore throat and dry cough that can last three to five days. Also, a loss of taste and smell that can linger for two to three weeks.”

Not so bad, right? Now compare that with what she is seeing in unvaccinated patients: “Fevers for five days. Productive coughs with chest pain and low oxygen levels, sometimes requiring hospitalization. Fatigue can last four to six weeks.”

If you have been diagnosed with a breakthrough infection, you probably won’t have to be hospitalized, but you’ll still need to treat yourself at home. According to Dr. Shillinger, you should talk to your primary care physician to come up with a care plan that takes into consideration your age and your underlying medical conditions.

Certain people can qualify for monoclonal antibody treatments, she says, including people over the age of 65, people who are immunocompromised, and those with diabetes, heart disease and lung disease.

How to treat a COVID-19 breakthrough infection

Dr. Shillinger says her recommendations are not all FDA-approved, but she starts by telling her patients three things: Treatment is supportive with plenty of rest and hydration; take Tylenol for fever and joint pain; and take 10 deep breaths every hour.

“You should also try to lie on your stomach as much as possible,” she adds. This can help your lungs work better and get more oxygen into them, more easily. 

If your cough is persistent, you can use over-the-counter cough suppressants. If you’re worried about your oxygen saturations, Dr. Shillinger recommends getting a pulse oximeter, which you can find at any pharmacy.

“Oxygen saturation should stay over 94%, and a downward trend is worrisome,” she says.

Other symptoms to watch for are worsening shortness of breath, which can occur after one week of symptom onset, confusion and dizziness. If you experience any of these, you should call your primary care physician or go to the closest emergency department for evaluation.

Breakthrough infections tend to affect people at increased risk, such as people with weakened immune systems or those in older age groups. However, more cases are cropping up, in part because so many people have relaxed about masking, handwashing and social distancing. Experts stress that vaccination is the best way to prevent infection and transmission of the newest COVID-19 variants.

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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