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COVID-19 vaccine distribution is ramping up in the U.S., but there’s a lot more work to be done, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 100 million doses have been administered at the time of publication—but that number is expected to rise quickly following the authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine.
On March 11, President Joe Biden announced that he will direct states to make every adult in the U.S. eligible for vaccination no later than May 1, with the hope that the nation will return to some sense of normalcy by July 4.
But once you are able to get in line for your shot, you may have questions about what to expect after you get vaccinated, particularly when it comes to side effects.
You might feel totally fine and experience no side effects at all after the vaccine, but the CDC says it’s also possible to experience minor flu-like symptoms, including pain and swelling at the injection site, a fever, chills, fatigue, or headache. All of this is totally normal, as it “basically shows that the immune system is being primed” to fight the virus, Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, previously told Prevention.com.
Of course, if you feel crummy for a few days, you’ll want to start feeling better ASAP. But the CDC says you should avoid taking an over-the-counter pain-relieving medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) before you get the vaccine, and to talk to your doctor if you wish to take them around the time of your immunization. Here’s what you should know.
First, a quick refresher on how acetaminophen and ibuprofen work in the body.
Acetaminophen is a non-aspirin pain reliever. It is often used for a fever and headaches, along with other common aches and pains, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Its exact mechanism isn’t entirely clear, says Jamie Alan, Pharm.D, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, but “the thought is that it acts in the brain to control pain.”
Ibuprofen is in a class of medications known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). “Ibuprofen works by inhibiting enzymes in your body—COX-1 and COX-2—to decrease inflammation,” Alan says. NSAIDs can also help reduce a fever and pain.
The CDC recommends avoiding ibuprofen or acetaminophen before you get the COVID-19 vaccine.
It totally makes sense that you’d want to pop a pain- or fever-reducing pill in anticipation of uncomfortable symptoms, but it’s unclear at this point how these medications will impact the vaccine’s ability to create those important COVID-fighting antibodies.
“There are a couple of small studies in children having to do with regular vaccines—not COVID vaccines—that might indicate that taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen before you get the vaccine might reduce your antibody response a little,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “But nobody really knows whether this has any clinical significance and it’s never been studied on a clinical scale.”
So, until more research is done and the implications are understood, it’s best to be cautious and simply avoid taking these meds right before you get vaccinated, as there is some risk that doing this might “render the vaccine less effective,”says David Cennimo, M.D., assistant professor of medicine-pediatrics infectious disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Should you worry about taking either medication after you get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Data doesn’t definitively say that taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen after getting vaccinated will interfere with the vaccine’s effectiveness, so don’t stress over it too much, says says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. In general, if you have bothersome pain or discomfort, taking an OTC med, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, per the dosage instructions is reasonable, per the CDC.
It’s also totally possible that the CDC recommends checking in with your doctor in advance because taking too much of either medication can be toxic, Dr. Russo says.
What else should you do if you have side effects after getting the COVID-19 vaccine?
If you’re feeling lousy after getting vaccinated but have no clue what to do when it comes to OTC meds, give your doctor a call, especially if you are pregnant or have an underlying health condition. “It’s a risk/benefit decision that is unique to each patient,” says Alan. “If someone has a fever of 104, it might be worth taking a dose of either acetaminophen or ibuprofen,” she says.
If you’re uncomfortable but feel like you can ride things out, Dr. Schaffner recommends drinking plenty of fluids, getting rest, and, if you have a fever, dressing in light clothes. If you feel soreness at the injection site, apply a cool, clean, wet washcloth to reduce swelling and try to move your arm gently to give it mild exercise, per the CDC.
Also, it’s not a bad idea to just take it easy the day after getting vaccinated. “Don’t get the shot and plan to go mountain climbing the next day,” Dr. Watkins says. After all, these vaccines teach your body how to fight a totally foreign virus, and that requires a lot of energy.
This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.
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