Side effects a result of ‘revved up’ immune system
Most common vaccine side effects in older adults
Data collected from the vaccine clinical trials
Side effects in adults 65+ after Moderna vaccine (second dose)
- Pain at injection site (83.4%)
- Fatigue (58.4%)
- Headache (46.4%)
- Muscle pain (46.9%)
- Joint pain (34.9%)
- Chills (30.6%)
Nausea/vomiting (11.8%) and fever (10.2%) were also reported.
Side effects in adults >55 after Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (second dose)
- Pain at injection site (66.1%)
- Fatigue (50.5%)
- Headache (39.0%)
- Muscle pain (28.7%)
- Chills (22.7%)
- Joint pain (18.9%)
Fever (10.9%), diarrhea (8.3%) and vomiting (0.7%) were also reported.
Side effects in adults 60+ after Johnson & Johnson vaccine
- Pain at injection site (33.3%)
- Headache (30.4%)
- Fatigue (29.7%)
- Muscle pain (24.0%)
- Nausea (12.3%)
- Fever (3.1%)
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
However irritating and uncomfortable they may be, these short-lived side effects “are normal signs that your body is building protection,” the CDC says.
The headache, fatigue, aches and chills are a result of an inflammatory response that happens “as the immune system sends the soldiers in to encounter the vaccine and begin to respond to it,” Schaffner explains. So the systemic reactions “are already your immune system starting to rev up,” he adds.
Over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin or antihistamines can help with any post-vaccine pain or discomfort. The CDC says individuals can take these medications as long as there's no other medical reason that would prevent them from taking them normally, although it's always a good idea to check with your doctor.
Just be sure to wait until symptoms — if any — set in before you seek relief. Schaffner says there's some data that suggest taking a pain-relieving medication before your shot can weaken your immune response, so “out of an excess of caution” it's best to wait. And any irritation or discomfort in the arm where you got the shot can be eased with a clean, cool, wet washcloth, the CDC says.
Preparing for possible side effects
If you are prone to dizzy spells or have trouble with balance, go to your appointment with “someone who can hold your arm,” Schaffner says, referring to the CDC report that listed dizziness as a common side effect from the shots. Making sure you're well hydrated before your vaccine can also help offset any lightheadedness.
"And remember, one of the good things is you will be observed for at least 15 minutes afterward. So you'll be sitting down in an area just beyond where you were vaccinated, and you can compose yourself and relax,” he adds.
In most cases, vaccine-related side effects fade after a few days — typically one to three days after onset. However, if they linger or worry you, contact your doctor. The same goes if the redness or tenderness where you got the shot gets worse after 24 hours, the CDC advises.
An important thing to keep in mind: In comparison to COVID, any side effects from the vaccines “are really very trivial,” Schaffner says. “It is a very modest price to pay if you do have some transient side effects, in order to protect ourselves against a virus that really could put any of us into the intensive care unit within 48 hours."
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.