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What to expect when you get a COVID-19 vaccine

What should you expect when it’s your turn to get the COVID-19 vaccine? Jayne Morgan, M.D., a cardiologist and clinical director of Piedmont's COVID-19 task force, discusses potential side effects, how the vaccine works and why you need two doses.

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is generally safe and is similar to getting the flu vaccine, though the technology is different, says Dr. Morgan. Like with most vaccines, there is the potential for side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine, though not everyone who gets vaccinated experiences symptoms.

Potential COVID-19 vaccine side effects

“The symptoms reported from both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are very similar to those of the flu shot,” she says.

The potential side effects include:

  • Soreness or stiffness at the injection site (the upper arm muscle)

  • Chills

  • Fever

  • Muscle aches

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

If needed, you can take an over-the-counter pain reliever before or after your vaccine to help with soreness, Dr. Morgan says.

“I received the vaccine and experienced arm soreness and stiffness, but that was it,” she says. “It lasted about 24 hours and felt similar to the side effects from the flu shot. I was able to continuing to teach Pilates without any issues.”

Can you get COVID-19 from the vaccine?

You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine, she says. This is because the vaccine doesn’t contain the virus, but uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology instead.

This technology teaches the body how to make a protein or part of a protein to form an immune response. This immune response produces antibodies, which protect you if you are exposed to the real virus.

Why are two doses needed?

“Both of the clinical trials for Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech were conducted using two doses of the vaccine – the second dose is a booster dose,” she says. “The data that went before the FDA, which grants the emergency use authorization, is based on a two-dose regimen for both vaccines.”

The Moderna vaccine doses are spaced 28 days apart and the Pfizer-BioNTech doses are spaced 21 days apart.

When to contact your doctor after getting vaccinated

If you are generally feeling unwell or start to develop anything that appears to be an allergic reaction (such as swelling, itching at the back of the throat or on your face), you should see a doctor, says Dr. Morgan.

This applies to any vaccine or medication, not just the COVID-19 vaccine.

“If you took something and begin to feel unwell beyond the normal symptoms mentioned above, then you should contact your physician,” she says.

Should you get a second dose if you had a reaction to the first?

If you had an allergic reaction, especially a moderate to severe reaction that required you to seek medical care, you should discuss with your physician whether or not you should get the second dose.

But if you just experienced the common side effects, you should still get the second dose, says Dr. Morgan.

“This is because the 94.5% and 95% protection rate only occurs after you get the second vaccine,” she explains. “We want to have as much protection as possible and it’s the second dose that gets you into that high range of protection.”

Can you get COVID-19 if you’ve been vaccinated?

“There have been several reports of people who have contracted COVID-19 after getting the vaccine,” says Dr. Morgan. “But you cannot catch COVID-19 from the vaccine.”

So, how did these people end up testing positive?

“Either they were exposed immediately prior to receiving the first dose and didn’t realize it or they were exposed immediately afterward before their body had a chance to build immunity,” she explains. “We start seeing immunity about eight to 10 days after the first dose. There’s always a window in which you could contract it. So, if you come in contact with the virus during that window, you could become positive with COVID-19 even though you received your first dose of the vaccine.”

That’s why it’s still essential to wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance, even if you’ve been vaccinated.

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