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What Are the Side Effects of COVID-19 Vaccines? ​

What symptoms to expect after getting boosted with the latest vaccines ​


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A new batch of COVID-19 vaccines is now available, and these latest shots — from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax — have been reformulated to better target some of the more recently circulating coronavirus variants.

The revised vaccines are somewhat different from the COVID-19 bivalent boosters introduced this time last year, which targeted omicron subvariants BA.4/BA.5 plus the original strain of the coronavirus. This year, the vaccines target just one virus strain: XBB.1.5, which is no longer the dominant variant but still continues to circulate in the U.S., along with many of its close relatives

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Health officials are recommending that everyone 6 months and older roll up their sleeves for the added dose of protection against the illness that has taken more than 1.1 million American lives. (People 12 and older can receive the Novavax vaccine.) The shots are especially important for older adults, who continue to be hospitalized for COVID-19 at rates that are much higher than younger groups.

Is It a Booster?

Health experts aren’t calling this year’s vaccine a booster, like with previous versions. “I would liken it to the updated influenza vaccine that comes out each year. The influenza vaccine is updated each year as the strains that they protect against change year from year,” Sampathkumar said.

“The COVID vaccine definitely should be taken by those at highest risk of complications from COVID, and that includes older people, people with weakened immune systems, very young children. These are the people that we are seeing have significant complications from COVID,” Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert Priya Sampathkumar, M.D., said in a news release.

Still, some people have questions about the new COVID vaccines, including possible side effects. Here’s what to expect if you go in for the jab.

No surprises from common side effects

According to the Food and Drug Administration, the common side effects that can accompany the updated shots are in line with the previous versions.

“So, if you had a sore arm before, if you had a little bit of achiness, maybe a little low-grade fever, you can expect that to happen again,” Kristin Englund, M.D., infectious disease specialist with Cleveland Clinic, said in a news release.

  • Moderna booster side effects: Pain at the injection site was the most commonly reported side effect among people vaccinated with Moderna’s vaccine, according to data reviewed by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory panel. About 70 percent of people reported it, followed by fatigue, muscle aches, headache, joint pain, chills, nausea and vomiting, and fever.
  • Pfizer booster side effects: Pain at the injection site was also the most commonly reported reaction with Pfizer’s vaccine, according to the company; up to 90 percent of people reported it. Other typical side effects included fatigue, headache, chills, muscle pain, joint pain and fever.
  • Novavax booster side effects: The most common reactions reported in clinical trials testing the Novavax vaccine include headache, nausea or vomiting, muscle pain, joint pain, pain and tenderness at the injection site, fatigue and general discomfort.

Alleviating side effects

The good news: If you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19 — and millions of Americans have been — you likely already know what to expect and how your body may react.

“I think people also understand how to manage the side effects better in terms of drinking plenty of water prior to getting a vaccine, drinking plenty of water after you get the vaccine, taking it easy the next day,” Robert Weber, administrator for pharmacy services at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and assistant dean for medical center affairs at the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, told AARP.

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Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever afterward can help manage any discomfort, he added. Just know it’s not advised to take these medicines ahead of time to try to prevent potential side effects. And applying a clean, cool, wet washcloth to the injection site can help to relieve pain or swelling on the arm where you got the shot, the CDC said.

Another tip: If your schedule allows, clear your calendar the day after your vaccine. “If you work during the week, you might want to get vaccinated on Friday or Saturday so that you don’t have to work when you’re not feeling great,” said Kawsar Talaat, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Just know that one day of not feeling well from the vaccine is far better than several days of not feeling well with COVID,” she added.

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Not everyone experiences side effects after a COVID-19 vaccine; for most who do, symptoms tend to be mild to moderate and go away in a few days. That said, if your side effects are worrying or linger longer, it’s important to call your doctor. Serious reactions are rare, the CDC said, but they can happen.

Anaphylaxis, a severe type of allergic reaction that can occur after any type of vaccination, has occurred at a rate of approximately 5 cases per 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered, the CDC reports. Cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the outer lining of the heart) have also been reported following COVID-19 vaccination, though mostly in younger age groups.

Vaccines are key to preventing severe illness

COVID-19 is still sending more than 2,700 Americans to the hospital each day, and experts say the new boosters can help prevent that number from swelling even more this winter.

Find COVID-19 Vaccines in Your State

AARP's 53 state and territory COVID-19 vaccine guides can help you find vaccines near you and provide the latest answers to common questions about costs, eligibility and availability.

Keep in mind that older adults have access to two other tools that can help them avoid illness this season: The annual influenza vaccine, which experts say you can get when you go in for your COVID-19 vaccine, and a new RSV vaccine, which protects against complications from respiratory syncytial virus — a common bug that hospitalizes as many as 160,000 people 65 and older each year. 

“We also know that you can get more than one virus at the same time and that people who do get multiple viruses tend to be sicker. And so again, anything you can do to prevent infection is good,” Talaat said.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include new information.

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