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Understand Possible Side Effects of the Coronavirus Vaccines

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If you have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine, your opportunity to get one will be coming soon as more vaccine is available and larger groups within the community are vaccinated. While the vaccines were quick to market, the trials were rigorous, and they are proven safe with normal side effects.

Two vaccines are currently available for use in the United States – a vaccine from Pfizer and one from Moderna – and both are called messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines.

In the more than 73,000 people who were initially tested with these two vaccines, as well as those who have received the vaccines in the first few months of more widespread distribution, there have been no serious safety concerns.

Dr. Adam Brady, infectious disease specialist and chair of the Samaritan Coronavirus Task Force, discussed the new coronavirus vaccines in a recent Healthy Minds, Health Bodies seminar.

“Muscle pain is the most common side effect. Headaches and feeling tired are also fairly common, although very few cases are severe enough to inhibit daily activities,” Dr. Brady noted. “Some also had fever and/or chills, mostly after the second dose.

“To put these symptoms into context, I like to compare the COVID vaccine to two other commonly received vaccines – the flu and shingles vaccines. The side effects of the COVID vaccine are more than the typical flu shot, but are fairly comparable to, or possibly a bit less than, side effects from the shingles vaccine.”

Dr. Brady noted that most of the side effects were felt, “after the second dose of the vaccine, but they were short-lived,” he said.

Vaccine Side Effects Compared

Based on the highest side effect group found (those over 55 and after does 2) this chart compares the COVID-19 vaccine side effects to the common Flu vaccine and Shingles vaccine.

Symptoms Shingles Moderna  Pfizer Flu
Local Pain 88.4% 90.1% 77.8% 45.4%
Redness 38.7% 9.0% 5.9% 13.4%
Swelling 30.5% 12.6% 6.3% 11.6%
Muscle Pain 56.9% 61.3% 37.3% 15.4%
Fatigue 57% 67.6% 59.4% 17.8%
Headache 50.6% 62.8% 51.7% 18.7%
Chills 35.8% 48.3% 35.1% 6.2%
Fever 27.8% 17.4% 15.8% .8%

Chart Source:  Jesse O’Shea, MD

Managing the Side Effects

According to Dr. Brady, it is not recommended to take acetaminophen or ibuprofen before your vaccine to ward off potential side effects. “Certain pain relievers may inhibit the vaccine from doing its job,” said Dr. Brady. “Anti-inflammatory medications could inhibit the immune response resulting in potentially fewer antibodies.”

If you are already taking pain medications for another medical condition, Dr. Brady says to continue doing so. However, if you are not and you feel you need pain relievers, “I would use Tylenol, avoid ibuprofen, and wait until after symptoms appear,” said Dr. Brady.

You can also manage symptoms. If you have pain or swelling on your arm where you got your shot, movement and exercising your arm is encouraged, as well as applying a cool washcloth over the area. For fever, drink plenty of fluids and dress lightly. If you have chills, tiredness or headache, try resting and covering with a blanket.

In most cases, discomfort from fever or pain is normal, according to the CDC. Contact your health care provider if redness or tenderness where you got the shot increases after 24 hours or if your side effects don’t seem to be going away after a few days.

“Generally speaking, side effects have an upside,” Dr. Brady noted. “Typically, the more side effects one gets from the vaccine usually means the more antibodies your body is making and the stronger your immune response will be against getting the virus.”

Dr. Brady adds, “The second dose may spur more side effects, and quicker. The first dose prepares the body and instructs the immune system to respond strongly to the second dose.”

Some people’s immune systems will respond more than others and most people who have had COVID-19 may experience a stronger reaction during the first dose since they have a head start on building antibodies.

“I encourage everyone to read about these vaccines, talk to your health care provider if you have questions – most clinicians in this region have been vaccinated themselves,” Dr Brady said. In fact, 87% of Samaritan clinicians have been vaccinated. “The bottom line is that this vaccine is safe and highly effective and has been shown to protect you from getting sick with COVID-19.”

“These vaccines offer us a ray of hope to get through this pandemic, and the more of us who can get this vaccine so we can protect the most vulnerable members of society, the sooner we can get our lives back to normal,” he said. “We are all very excited about these vaccines and are working hard to make them available to the community as soon as we receive them.”

See the video link above for a detailed video presentation about the COVID-19 vaccines with Dr. Adam Brady. Recorded Jan. 21, 2021.

Stay up to date with our most current COVID-19 vaccine information at samhealth.org/COVIDVaccine.