How to manage your coronavirus vaccine side effects - including tips for avoiding painkillers

How to manage your coronavirus vaccine side effects - including tips for avoiding painkillers
A person takes a selfie after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Colorado.Michael Ciaglo / Stringer / Getty Images
  • It's normal to have side effects for 48 hours after your coronavirus vaccine.
  • But there are ways to minimize discomfort, like moving your arm or taking hot showers.
  • Medical experts recommend avoiding pain relievers and strenuous exercise, if possible.

Our immune systems are unique, so people respond differently to coronavirus vaccines.

The side effects you might experience after getting a shot can depend on broad categories like age and sex, as well as more individual characteristics such as genes or history of exposure to infections.

In general, medical experts say, it's normal to feel uncomfortable for up to 48 hours after your shot. That's usually a sign that the vaccine is doing its job.

Common side effects include pain at the injection site, fatigue, and headaches. For those receiving Pfizer's or Moderna's shots, people also tend to feel more run-down after their second dose.

"That feeling of yuckiness and fatigue and fever is your body making a great immune response," Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, told Insider.


But there are ways to minimize discomfort, experts said. Here are some tips for managing your vaccine side effects.

Try to avoid pain relievers, if possible

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't recommend taking pain relievers before your vaccine. That's because medications like Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve lower your immune response when you're banking on your body to do the opposite.

If you need to take a pain pill after your shot, Nachman said Tylenol is the least likely to interfere with your immune response.

"Immediately after the vaccine, I would prefer for you not to take anything," she said. "On the next day, though, if you feel like you have to take something, I would prefer you take some Tylenol."

Experts generally recommended trying some natural methods of pain relief first.


Remedies for sore arms: ice and movement

How to manage your coronavirus vaccine side effects - including tips for avoiding painkillers
A COVID-19 injection.Getty/David Greedy

Once a vaccine goes into your arm, blood flow increases and immune cells rush to the scene. This can result in pain at the injection site - the most common side effect of all three US-authorized coronavirus vaccines.

The CDC recommends applying a clean, cool washcloth over the area where you received your shot to reduce soreness. An ice park works, too, Dr. Lipi Roy, an internal medicine physician in New York City, wrote on Twitter.

Experts also recommended moving your vaccinated arm to stimulate blood flow.

"By moving the arm, it helps disperse that local area of inflammation faster," Dr. Daniel Summers, a pediatrician in Maine, recently told Insider.

But don't massage the vaccine site with your hand, he said - that could worsen inflammation and pain.


Hot showers can help with muscle pain

Muscle pain is among the most common vaccine side effects. Around 60% of participants in Moderna's clinical trial, 38% of Pfizer participants, and one-third of Johnson & Johnson participants reported the symptom.

Some doctors recommend Epsom salt baths to relieve muscle or body aches, but Nachman there's an even simpler remedy.

"I actually just tell people to take a nice hot shower," she said. "It's accessible to everybody and relatively cheap and most people do feel better after."

Check your tongue for signs of dehydration

Experts suggested drinking plenty of fluids before and after you've received your shot. Side effects like fever and nausea can make you dehydrated. Or, if you're dehydrated already, that can also make your side effects worse.

Nachman said there's an easy trick to tell if you should be drinking more water.

"If you stick out your tongue in the mirror and your tongue is white, you're not hydrated," she said.


Keep exercise light

How to manage your coronavirus vaccine side effects - including tips for avoiding painkillers
A man wears a face mask while exercising.Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

Exercising after your shot isn't necessarily a bad idea - if you're feeling up to it.

Still, experts suggested not straining yourself beyond your normal level of activity. Even if you're used to lots of exercise, Nachman said, it's important to listen to your body.

"If you're used to doing a 40-mile bike ride, this may not be the day to do it," she said. "If your body says 'I can't roll out of bed,' then don't push yourself to get on the treadmill and do a run or do a ride on the bike. Take it easy for that day."

Plan to take time off work after your second dose

A recent CDC report examined side effects among more than 1.9 million Americans who'd received both doses of Pfizer's or Moderna's vaccines. Across the board, side effects were more numerous and severe after the second dose of either vaccine.

The one exception is if you'd have COVID-19 before: A small study from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that vaccine side effects such as fatigue, headaches, and chills were more common after the first dose among people with preexisting immunity to the coronavirus than among people who'd never been infected.


In any case, medical experts said, plan to take time off work if you're feeling run-down.

"Take the sick day because you will be less effective at the work you're doing," Nachman said.

Call a doctor if side effects persist after a few days

How to manage your coronavirus vaccine side effects - including tips for avoiding painkillers
A person receives the AstraZeneca vaccine in Bologna, Italy on March 19, 2021.Michele Lapini/Getty Images

The CDC recommends calling a doctor if redness or tenderness at the injection site gets worse after 24 hours.

Nachman said she has also seen some patients develop rashes that take a week or so to resolve. The reaction is more common after Moderna's vaccine than Pfizer's, she said. (Nachman said she hasn't seen enough patients who received J&J's vaccine to know whether rashes are common after that shot.)

Usually, a rash isn't cause for concern, she added - unless you develop a fever as well.


"Local redness we see. Local tenderness we definitely see. A bit of a rash we also see. But combination of those with fever? That would be a trigger to have someone else take a look," Nachman said.

The CDC also recommends calling a doctor if your side effects aren't going away after a few days. In most cases, however, side effects are a welcome response.

"Remember, that's your immune system revving up," Nachman said. "You've done a great job immunologically. We're happy."

Julia Naftulin contributed reporting.