The Best Ways to Manage COVID Vaccine Side Effects, According to a Doctor

COVID vaccine side effects are easily managed with over-the-counter remedies.
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Maybe you're already scheduled to get the COVID-19 vaccine, or maybe you're just planing ahead. Either way, with chatter about what side effects to expect, you might be a little nervous.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common vaccine side effects are pain and swelling in the arm that received the injection as well as fever, chills, tiredness and headache.

These are normal. Let's repeat that: These are all normal.

While a symptom like a fever might make you think something is going wrong, it's actually a sign that all is right.

"It means your body is teaching your immune system to recognize and attack the virus," Sunitha Posina, MD, an internal medicine doctor in Stony Brook, New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com. (On the other hand, if you don't get a fever, that's totally fine, too. The vaccine still worked for you.)

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Flu-like symptoms don't mean you got sick from the vaccine or got COVID-19. The approved vaccines do not contain the live virus, which means they cannot make you sick, per the CDC. And just because your neighbor had a fever and chills does not mean you will. This response is variable.

There are also reports that some people have a stronger reaction to the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and so you may be wondering if there's anything you can do to decrease the chance of having side effects and how to care for yourself if you do. Here's what you need to know:

Before Your Shot

Don't take a painkiller like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) before your vaccine in hopes of "getting ahead of" possible side effects.

"We don't know if it will impact your immune system or not, because they did not do this as part of the vaccine trial," Dr. Posina says.

What's more, not everyone experiences side effects, and there's no reason to take an over-the-counter medication if you don't need to. If you do, you're opening yourself up to potential side effects from the medication itself.

One exception: If you regularly take an NSAID for a preexisting condition, like arthritis, or are suffering from a migraine that day and need to take it for pain relief, then it should be OK to take it, Dr. Posina says. There are no set-in-stone rules, but it comes down to what's best for you and your own risk-benefit. If you have any questions or concerns, call your doctor.

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After Your Shot

1. Move Your Arm

"This improves blood flow and exercises that muscle," Dr. Posina says.

Keeping your limb moving may help decrease pain and swelling at the injection site, according to UPMC HealthBeat.

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2. Use a Compress

Get a washcloth wet with cold water and place it on your arm where you got the shot. The cold temp can also help reduce swelling, Dr. Posina says.

3. Treat Flu-Like Symptoms With Rest and Tylenol

If you get a fever or chills, take acetaminophen (Tylenol).

"There is no data to suggest that taking acetaminophen after the vaccine will interrupt the immune response," Dr. Posina says.

She points out that in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna clinical trials, the efficacy of 95 and 94 percent, respectively, was based on the fact that they did not restrict participants from taking medications after (and you can assume that some people did).

Lay down and rest if you need to, stay hydrated and generally listen to your body and take care of yourself.

How to Manage 'COVID Arm'

There is a side effect dubbed "COVID arm," which is a red, itchy, swollen or painful rash in the area that you received the shot, according to the CDC.

"This is a delayed allergic reaction," Dr. Posina says, and is a result of immune cells reacting with muscle cells that have the piece of mRNA spike protein. The good news is that this is not a life-threatening or harmful reaction, but yet another sign that your immune system is kicking into gear, she says.

Getting "COVID arm" after the first shot does not mean that you should avoid the second.

"You should still get the second shot at the recommended interval if the vaccine you got needs a second shot," the CDC says on its website.

To quell the rash, Dr. Posina recommends using cold compresses. If the soreness is really uncomfortable, take a Tylenol or NSAID. Treat itchiness with an antihistamine such as Benadryl.

When you go in for the second dose, tell the person administering your vaccine that you got this rash last time and get the shot in the opposite arm, the CDC says.

"COVID arm" is different from experiencing hives, swelling or wheezing within four hours of receiving the vaccine (categorized as a "non-severe allergic reaction") or anaphylaxis (a "severe" allergic reaction that requires treatment with an EpiPen or a hospital visit). If you experienced this, the CDC advises against getting the second vaccine dose.

What to Do if Your Side Effects Persist or Get Worse

According to the CDC, these side effects should go away within a few days.

If redness and tenderness in your arm gets worse after 24 hours or your side effects don't get better and go away after a few days, then call your doctor.

Dr. Posina adds that you should also call if you have a high fever (higher than 103 degrees F) for three days in a row or are experiencing breathing issues, chest pain and wheezing at any time. These are not expected side effects and require medical attention.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker before leaving the house.
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