And as a journalist who has been reporting on the novel coronavirus, COVID long-haulers, and the riskiness of various activities since spring of 2020, I was starting to feel a whole new level of exhaustion after months of hypervigilance, worry, and loss all around me.
On top of this, my little sister’s wedding was coming up in mid-April of 2021. Originally a 200-guest affair, it had been trimmed down to our immediate family and a handful of guests for an outdoor ceremony by the Tennessee River. The hope was that most of us would be fully vaccinated by then.
With the help of the Virginia Department of Health, my partner and I signed up and waited for our appointments to be confirmed. By the time I got my place in line, my grandmother had already received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and had no side effects besides a slightly sore arm for about a day.
My mom, a high school biology teacher in Tennessee, had also gotten the Pfizer vaccine as an essential worker. She said her side effects were mild, though she did wake up with arm pain about 12 hours after the first shot and had a gnarly all-day headache after the second.
The night before my appointment, I read up on possible side effects of COVID-19 vaccines and figured my response would be similar—some soreness at the injection site, fatigue, and body aches, and perhaps some nausea, chills, or a fever for a few days to a week.
On Friday, March 12 at 3:30 p.m., I went into the vaccination site in my area to get my first shot. Although I’ve heard about a wide variety of experiences from many others and we’re learning more every day, here’s how my journey with the Moderna vaccine went:
Day 1: Full-blown fatigue with arm pain and body aches.
I’ll be honest: The first shot hit me like a bus. Thirty minutes after getting the prick, my right arm where I got the injection became heavy with increasingly sharp pains radiating from seemingly every muscle fiber.
When I got home, I went straight to bed, put a heating pad on high, and wrapped it around my arm. I decided to take the rest of the day off. Later, my partner ordered dinner, but my appetite—usually high—was about a two out of 10. I also developed a dull headache, brain fog, and body aches. But the pain in my arm was by far the most intense.
As night fell, I tried to lie as still as possible to avoid triggering more arm pain. My partner and I Googled whether I could take over-the-counter pain medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), but most of the reporting we found just said to call your doctor. Since I didn’t have a primary care physician, I decided to rough it. Overnight, I slept on my back to avoid putting pressure on my arm. Still, I woke up moaning a few times. (Turns out, it’s generally OK to take these OTC meds after your shot—more on that below.)
Day 2: Cue the stomach cramps.
Early in the morning, around 6:00 a.m., it felt as if my abs were so twisted up that they’d turned into concrete. My arm pain was somehow even worse. To deal, I made myself a makeshift sling out of a scarf then crawled right back into bed. As silly as I looked, it seemed to help.
As the day went on, I felt really fatigued and experienced a few waves of nausea but never became physically ill. Most of my day was spent in bed.
Day 3: Mild side effects at last.
By the third day, I felt close to normal again. My arm pain began to fade, as did the brain fog and exhaustion. I decided to put off working out for one more day, but I did have the energy to do a few chores around the house.
Days 1-5: Very mild side effects.
Four weeks later, I got my second shot. It was a breeze. I had a little arm pain and a dull headache for the first day or so followed by occasional nausea for about five days. I kept waiting for my side effects to get worse, but they never did.
Funny enough, a few of my friends had the opposite experience—a mild reaction to the first shot, followed by major side effects with the second. The CDC says this, too, is perfectly normal.
Why were my vaccine side effects so bad?
Turns out, I got a double whammy as a woman and a relatively young person. Both groups seem to have more side effects compared to men and older people who are, conversely, more likely to experience severe disease and death from the coronavirus, according to early data, says Andrew Janowski, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri.
Generally, healthy young people have a more robust immune response which means a stronger reaction to vaccines and infections alike. As far as gender differences go, women likely have more severe side effects than men due to complex differences in our genetics and hormones like estrogen and testosterone, explains Dr. Janowski. Another factor to consider: We may also be more likely to report side effects.
Even though the side effects can be rough for some people, the reward is well worth it.
Vaccine side effects are a sign that your body is mounting a defense against the virus. The currently-approved vaccines give your body “instructions” to make the spike protein that gives SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus) its distinct spiky look. But since this is only a piece of the virus, you cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine, explains Dr. Janowski.
“The arm pain from the vaccine is because it is ‘ground zero’ of the immune response,” explains Dr. Janowski. “Many of the cells with the virus spike protein are those in the arm, so the body will mount the strongest immune response in that location.”
When your system recognizes these foreign proteins, it triggers your immune cells to start producing antibodies—infection fighters that will bind to the virus to stop its spread inside your body, should you come into contact with it in the future. The flu-like symptoms you could develop are actually a result of cytokines, the alarm bells of the body which cue your immune system to get to work.
Despite the brief and sometimes life-disrupting discomfort, getting the COVID-19 vaccine can help prevent you from contracting the virus, greatly decrease your risk of passing it onto others, lower your risk of severe illness if you do fall ill, and contribute to herd immunity so vulnerable people, like children and the immunocompromised, can eventually be protected.
“We are all in this together, and the more we can get as many people vaccinated, the closer we are to getting back to the old normal,” says Dr. Janowski.
How to deal with vaccine side effects
A good rule of thumb is to only take NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) after you’ve gotten the shot rather than beforehand, per the CDC, says Dr. Janowski. Some small studies suggest that these pain relievers may reduce the number of antibodies you produce from the vaccine when taken before your dose—but this is currently being studied.
If you develop worrisome or worsening side effects that don’t go away after a few days, reach out to your doctor or the site that vaccinated you for further guidance, he suggests. Of course, if you have a severe reaction—rare but possible—seek medical help ASAP.
Otherwise, the worst of it should be over in a few days or so. Two weeks after your last prick, you’re officially fully vaccinated. In the future, be on the lookout for potential booster shots to maintain protection from new strains of the virus.
“The good thing about common side effects is that they are transient and will go away with time,” says Dr. Janowski. “In some ways, this is the trade-off for being protected against COVID-19, but it’s a trade-off I would take.”
After dancing in public for the first time in over a year at my sister’s wedding, I 100% agree.
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