A “Worst-Case Scenario” guide to vaccine side effects.
The bitch about the COVID-19 vaccine is that it kickstarts an immune response, often causing side effects. While many people feel nothing, most will feel something – usually a bit of fatigue, headache, nausea or at least some lingering soreness at the injection site. This is not that story.
My ordeal with the COVID-19 vaccine is a bit more dramatic and uncommon, but certainly not unheard of. In an informal poll of about two dozen friends and family (ages 18 – 63), about half were, to some degree, feeling my pain. There’s a chance you might, too, when you get the shot. And that’s OK!
Better than OK, in fact, because it means your immune system is working. I’m sharing my experience here not to dissuade you but to help you prepare for the Worst Case Scenario in the event your body reacts like mine did.
I’m here to tell you: you’ll live! And with some planning, you’ll hopefully avoid some of my mistakes and be on your way to a faster recovery.
TIMELINE OF SYMPTOMS (with helpful commentary in blue)
Friday 2:30pm: I get the J&J vaccine in my non-dominant arm and barely feel a sting. I chit-chat my way through the observation period and by the time I’m back to work, it’s the farthest thing from my mind.
Friday 7:00pm: My head starts to hurt but it was a long day so I brush it off.
Friday 9:00pm: My head hurts and I start to feel chilly but the window was cracked so I brush it off.
Friday 9:30pm: Omg my head! The chills! I crawl into bed wearing all my clothes and pass out with my teeth clattering.
TIP: Make sure you have extra blankets handy for that first night after your COVID shot. My symptoms came on very suddenly; by the time I felt them, I was in no shape to dig thru the linen closet.
Saturday 6:00am: I wake up in exactly the same position I was when I fell asleep, except now the chills are gone but my headache is splitting like the worst hangover of my life. I stumble to the bathroom for two extra-strength Tylenol gel caps, then crawl back to bed.
Saturday 6:30am: I throw up the gel caps but my head still threatens to explode off my shoulders so I take two Advil and try to fall back to sleep (but mostly just lie there softy groaning).
TIP: Bad headaches can really upset the stomach, I wish I’d remembered to take a Tums/Pepcid/Pepto or something pre-emptively when my head first started to hurt. Consider having it handy in case you need it.
Saturday 7:00am: Steve — who had the same shot I did — stretches his arms and wakes up like he’s had the most restful night of his life. My head throbs with jealousy and I throw up the Advil and then, for good measure, dry heave so forcefully the cat hides. Steve reschedules our day.
TIP: Don’t make any plans for the day after your vaccination – maybe even block out 48 hours just in case. I was so out of it, I totally would’ve just flaked on all our appointments if Steve hadn’t thought to cancel them. If you’ve got a dog, seriously consider having a walker on standby.
Saturday 7:30am – 2pm: Wow my head hurts. Some body aches too but mainly it’s just this intense, unrelenting pain in my head, behind my eyes, at the base of my neck… even my scalp seems to scream from every hair follicle. I can’t sleep but I’m super tired and queasy so I just lie in bed with a pillow on my face to block the light out. At some point I realize I’m really thirsty, but it’s not like I can do anything about it.
TIP: I cannot stress enough the importance of having water and perhaps also another beverage like juice or Gatorade handy. Preferably in like a wide glass jar/bottle that’s nice and cool on a feverish forehead…. I don’t know if the vaccine specifically dehydrates you but I did feel really parched, and doctors are saying that hydration is key for lessening side-effects. I think if I had to do it again, I’d try upping my fluid intake the day before. Couldn’t hurt!
Saturday 2:00pm: I’m up but barely — just enough to shuffle to the kitchen for some flat coke which is scientifically un-proven to settle tummies but I find the sugar and caffeine uplifting. I take more Tylenol and Advil, then crash on the couch.
TIP: It’s safe to take Tylenol and Advil at the same time for a one-two punch that knocks out pain better than either medication alone (make sure you follow the dosage guidelines for each).
Saturday 4:30pm: Finally! I seem to be over the worst. Steve and I take a walk around the condo complex. He’s been a little tired all day but otherwise hasn’t felt any side effects. We’re both ravenously hungry so we order Five Guys and make it an early night.
To wrap up: it’s probably a good idea to stock up on whatever “comfort foods” you crave when you’re sick with flu – or recovering from a night out. For most people, symptoms last about 24 hours but two or even three days isn’t unheard of. You can do this!
Vax Like a Boss
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best and remember that even if you get hammered by side-effects, your discomfort is normal and temporary. COVID, on the other hand, could literally kill you or leave you physically and/or emotionally traumatized for the rest of your life.
And it’s a civic duty! Dr. Fauci estimates we’ll need about 90% of Americans to be vaccinated in order to achieve the “herd immunity” needed to safely resume normal existence. For every shot administered, we all benefit.
To everyone who’s had their COVID shot(s) – thank you! And to everyone who still needs one, please sign up as soon as you can. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the City’s “Vaccine Interest” list or call 215-685-5488.
And always feel free to stop by the Local’s Community Resource Center (245 W. Chelten Ave) for information on vaccination pop-ups and other grassroots efforts addressing the most urgent public health issue of our time.