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What to expect after the coronavirus vaccine: Q&A with a pharmacist

A pharmacist explains what you should—and shouldn’t—do after getting your COVID-19 vaccine.

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: As experts learn more about the novel coronavirus, news and information changes. For the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Who can get the coronavirus vaccine? | What to expect after vaccination | Do I really need two doses? | Infection after vaccination | Face masks and social distancing | Travel restrictions | Seeing family and friends | Immunity | Donating blood | Exercising

Since the COVID-19 virus began spreading in the U.S., health experts have stressed the importance of a vaccine for COVID-19. Clinical trials were fast-tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and there are now three vaccines available in the States: the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, and the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine. While this is a great step forward in stopping the spread of the pandemic, does it mean you can go mask-less and re-join social gatherings once you’re vaccinated? Yes and no. Here’s what you need to know about getting vaccinated.

Who can get the COVID vaccine?

Everyone 12 years of age and older can now get a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. The Pfizer vaccine was recently authorized for adolescents ages 12-15. Age is a determining factor for which vaccine is appropriate. If you are 12 years old for example, you can only get the Pfizer COVID vaccine, but if you are 18 or older, you can get any COVID vaccine.

Here’s a quick comparison of the three available COVID vaccines in the US.

Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine (J & J COVID-19 Vaccine)
Age group eligible 18+ years old 12+ years old 18+ years old
Dosing schedule 2 doses, 28 days (1 month) apart 2 doses, 21 days (3 weeks) apart 1 single dose

 

According to the CDC, there are many ways to find a vaccine provider near you:

  • Visit vaccines.gov
  • Text your zip code to 438-829 or call 1-800-232-0233.
  • Check your local pharmacy’s and/or hospital’s website.
  • Ask your healthcare provider.
  • Contact your local health department.

Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the CDC can help you get the vaccine. The FDA is only responsible for authorizing the vaccines under the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), not distribution. If you receive an email from someone who says they are from the FDA or CDC about a COVID vaccine appointment, it is a scam.

Aside from rolling up your sleeve to get the shot, there isn’t much you need to do prior to getting the COVID-19 vaccine—besides avoiding over-the-counter pain relievers just before getting vaccinated. There’s some evidence that Tylenol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen) can decrease the efficacy of the shot. However, if you take these regularly, check with your doctor before skipping.

Even if you already had COVID-19, you should still receive the coronavirus vaccination. The CDC recommends it as reinfection is possible. However, if you were treated with monoclonal antibodies such as bamlanivimab, or convalescent plasma, you will need to wait 90 days before getting the COVID-19 vaccine. If you’re not sure what treatment you received, check with your doctor.

Your doctor can help you determine when it’s safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As research is ongoing about the coronavirus vaccines, these recommendations may change. 

What can I expect after getting vaccinated?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), side effects from the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, and the Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine are generally mild and include:

  • Injection site reactions like pain, redness, or swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Joint pain

More people experience side effects after the second dose of the vaccine (if they are getting a two-dose vaccine). You can sign up for the CDC’s V-safe After Vaccination Health Checker program, where you can use your mobile phone to check in and report side effects.

Depending on your medical history, you will be observed for at least 15 to 30 minutes after receiving your vaccine. 

You will receive a coronavirus vaccination card that contains information about the vaccine, such as the lot number and expiration date. Bring the card back for your second dose (if you are getting a two-dose vaccine), and the completed card will serve as a record of your coronavirus vaccine. You can keep your card in a plastic protector, but do not laminate the card in case booster shots are required in the future.

Can I take ibuprofen after the COVID vaccine?

When you get home, plan to get some rest and drink plenty of fluids. Apply a cool compress if your arm is sore. While it’s not recommended to take medication before the vaccine in anticipation of side effects, you can take ibuprofen (or your OTC pain medication of choice) after the vaccine if you normally take it. If you are unsure which medication is safe for you, talk to your healthcare provider before taking any pain medication.

Do I need the second shot?

If you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you only need one dose. Otherwise, even if you experience side effects, you should still get the second shot—unless you had a very rare, serious allergic reaction to the first COVID vaccine and your healthcare provider advises you not to. The second shot is required to ensure you have the most protection against COVID-19.

Schedule your second vaccination immediately, so you will be sure to complete the two-dose series on time. If you receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, you will get the next dose in approximately 21 days. If you receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the next dose will be in about 28 days. You cannot get your second dose across manufacturers. Meaning, if your first dose is the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, you cannot get Moderna for the second shot, and vice versa.

How long will it take to build immunity after getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

According to the CDC, the vaccine cannot give you the coronavirus. None of the vaccines contain the live virus that causes COVID-19.

However, some people do get COVID-19 after the vaccine, but this is not because of the vaccine. This is because these people may have caught the virus right before or after vaccination. It takes a few weeks for the body to build immunity against coronavirus, so if you get infected before the vaccine has a chance to “kick in,” you can still get sick. 

You are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose of a two-dose (Moderna or Pfizer) vaccine, or two weeks after the single-dose (Janssen) vaccine. There are very rare instances of vaccine breakthroughs, when an extremely small number of people are still infected with COVID-19 even after being fully vaccinated.

RELATED: Why you shouldn’t panic about vaccine breakthroughs

Do I still need to wear a face mask and social distance after getting the vaccine?

Here’s some good news: According to the CDC, “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” (Think: stores, hospitals, airports, etc.) Although the vaccines are quite effective, there is still a small chance you can get infected (with a minimal chance of serious illness). 

We do not yet have herd immunity in the United States, so when in doubt, avoid crowds, wear a mask, and wash your hands.  

Am I exempt from quarantine orders when traveling after I get vaccinated?

With new mutations of the coronavirus, there is still a lot that is unknown and changing. It’s a good idea to check the CDC’s website on travel recommendations by destination. If you are not fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends delaying travel and staying home.

If you do travel, check the CDC recommendations for quarantine based on where you’ve traveled and follow local guidelines. While en route to your destination, wear a mask, distance, and sanitize frequently. Generally, fully vaccinated people do not need to quarantine after traveling within the U.S. With international travel, you will need to show a negative COVID-19 test before returning to the U.S.

When can I see friends and family who have been vaccinated?

After many long months of missing your friends and family, it’s understandable you’d want to gather again after your (and/or their) coronavirus vaccine. The CDC now says that you can gather with other fully vaccinated people both indoors and outdoors without a mask; however, state laws vary in terms of public places. Also, certain places or situations mandate masks such as hospitals or airplane travel. The CDC reminds us that they “cannot provide the specific risk level for every activity in every community. It is important to consider your own personal situation and the risk to you, your family, and your community before venturing out.” As recommendations can change, check the CDC website for the most up-to-date information. 

As we approach summer, we can keep our hopes up for less illness with COVID-19. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently speculated that we could approach herd immunity by the end of the summer and “normality that is close to where we were before” by the end of 2021. 

How long does immunity last after a COVID vaccine?

You’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your dose of the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, or two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. However, scientists are still studying:

  • How long the COVID vaccine will protect people
  • How well the vaccine prevents the spread of COVID-19
  • How many people must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity
  • How effective the vaccines are against variants

Can you donate blood after getting a COVID vaccine?

According to the Red Cross, in most cases, you can donate blood right away as long as you are feeling well and don’t have any symptoms. When you donate, you’ll also have to give the COVID vaccine manufacturer name. If you don’t know what type of COVID vaccine you received, you will have to wait two weeks before giving blood. 

Can you exercise after a COVID vaccine?

According to pulmonologist Humberto Choi, MD, you may want to take it easy for a day or so after the COVID vaccine. Dr. Choi recommends a rest day or just a light walk or less strenuous exercise before resuming your typical exercise routine.