You’ve probably heard that getting back to pre-pandemic life will require widespread COVID-19 vaccination. As of mid-February more than 50 million Americans have gotten the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but only 14 million have received both doses. Despite a slow start, though, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told Today hosts on Feb. 11 that April would be “open season” for vaccines, where anyone who wants to should be able to sign up for a jab.
If you’re ready to get your shot, like, tomorrow, you might feel equal parts excited and curious about what your vaccine appointment will be like. As with any vaccine, especially one as new as the COVID-19 shot, it’s totally normal to have lots of questions about what to do before, during, and after you get the jab.
To help you mentally prep for vax day, medical experts and those who have already received both doses share the inside scoop on what you should know about getting your COVID vaccination.
How To Prep Before Your COVID Vaccine Appointment
Before you make your appointment, chat with your healthcare provider if you’re immunocompromised or have a pre-existing condition, says Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, M.D., assistant professor in the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Though the vaccines are safe, immunocompromised people were not included in the vaccine trials, so your doc can tell you about any precautions to take.
People with a history of anaphylactic shock — allergic reactions severe enough to need an EpiPen — should talk to their doctors about the vaccine ahead of time, too, as they might suggest extra monitoring on vax day. Having a reaction to the vaccine is super rare, but possible: Between December 2020 and mid-January 2021, there were around 60 confirmed cases of anaphylaxis after the vaccine, STAT news reported — that works out to a little over 2 cases per million doses of the Moderna vaccine, and 6 cases per million Pfizer doses.
When you’re eligible and ready to sign up for an appointment time, you’ll head to your local public health authority’s website. Most will have you fill out a health history form (similar to this CDC checklist), asking about your prior experience with COVID-19 or the vaccine, plus whether you’re on blood thinners, pregnant, or prone to severe allergic reactions. This double checks if there’s any reason you shouldn’t get the shot, and makes vaccine administrators aware of your risk of reaction. If you’re signing up via a doctor or hospital that already has your info, you might get to skip this step.
Actually securing your appointment slot is where the process could get tricky. You might get lucky on your first attempt, or it could take you several tries to finally get a time slot. Tonya Russell, 33, an essential worker and freelance journalist based in New Jersey, says she got an appointment pretty quickly, because she signed up as soon as her doctor posted online about the scheduling site being up and running around 11 p.m. one night. “By the next morning, the site crashed,” she says. “I’m assuming I got ahead of the traffic.”
Once you have your vaccine appointment date down, think about calling out of work ahead of time. Because you might experience side effects from the shot, including muscle aches, headache, chills, and fatigue, as well as pain or redness at the injection site, you might want to skip work (and working out) for the day, Galiatsatos says.
What To Do On The Day Of Your COVID Vaccine Appointment
There’s no real physical prep you need to do on vax day, besides making sure you have easy access to your upper arm, says Dr. Schubert Perotte, M.D., chairman and medical director in the department of emergency medicine at Jersey City Medical Center. Layer a tank top under your coat, or make sure you can roll your sleeve up far enough to get the injection near your shoulder.
You might have heard people suggest you take Tylenol or Advil before your shot in order to minimize uncomfortable side effects. “However, the advice is to not premedicate with them — only take them if symptoms develop,” says Galiastos. That’s because it’s not known if these meds can influence how well the vaccine works, so it’s best to skip before. “Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are fine if people develop symptoms after getting the vaccine,” he notes, as long as you don’t have a condition that prevents you from taking these pain meds in the first place.
You do want to drink water on the day of your shot. Hydrating can help ease muscle aches, Galiatsatos says, and plenty of fluids can offset any discomfort you might get from a fever, according to the CDC. A meal or snack pre-jab is also a good idea, says Perotte. That way you’ll feel energized, especially if you have to wait in line for a while.
Speaking of waiting in line, that’s a definite possibility. Russell’s first shot took about 45 minutes, and her second, about 1.5 hours. Many people wait in line at the site for a similar time slot, and there may be hold-ups between appointments. Russell says while she did have to show her ID at her vaccine appointments, when she took her grandmother for her shot, they didn’t ask for her identification. Either way, it’s probably best to bring your ID just in case. Your state should cover your vaccine, though, so you don’t need insurance. “[The process] seemed like a pretty seamless and structured roll-out — it wasn’t chaotic at all,” Russell says.
Before actually receiving your injection on site, workers will ask again about your allergy history, including medications, foods, and other vaccines, says Perotte, so they know your risk of a reaction.
After that, you’re ready for your jab. The shot you’ll get for COVID-19 is intramuscular, just like the flu shot, so you might feel some pain or a pinch. Arm soreness after (and even in the days to follow) might occur, too, Galiatsatos says.
When you’re done with your jab, you have to hang around for 15 minutes to make sure you don’t have a reaction. Those prone to severe allergic reactions or anaphylaxis should stay for at least 30 minutes, according to the CDC.
Just like you’ve been doing for 11 months, you’ll still social distance and wear a mask through your entire vax appointment and after. Your vaccine might not offer full protection for a week or two after the second dose, says the CDC, and experts are still researching whether vaccinated people can transmit COVID. “Masking, hand-washing and physical distancing remain necessary until a sufficient number of people are immune,” Perotte explains. “As more people are vaccinated and experts have a better idea of how long natural and vaccine immunity lasts, public health experts will update their guidance as necessary.”
What To Expect After Your COVID Vaccine
Galiatsatos compares your body’s reaction to the COVID-19 vaccines to a gym session when you go really hard and don’t feel so great after — that’s your immune system revved up. “You might experience chills, uneasiness, muscle aches, or cramps,” he says — all signs your immune system is working. Personally, Galiatsatos says he and his wife experienced chills, and his wife also had a low-grade fever.
Some people might experience these side effects right away, but for others, it can take a few hours. Janelle Aguilera Ringer, 27, a public relations specialist at a trauma center in Southern California, says she felt fine after her vaccine, which she got in the morning. But by nighttime, she had aches, muscle soreness, and the chills. “I felt a little sluggish the next day, but the achiness and chills were gone,” she says.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require a second dose, three weeks to one month after the first, respectively. To get the benefits of the vaccine, you can't skip your second shot, Perotte notes. For some people, the second dose can bring on more severe side effects than the first, Galiatsatos says, though he actually felt more bothered by the first. “Just prepare yourself to feel kind of miserable after one,” he warns. Sign up for the CDC’s V-Safe smartphone-based tool, and you can report your side effects to the CDC via text message. It also reminds you about your second dose. When you head to that second appointment, Perotte recommends bringing the vaccine card you got at the first one, so you have all the info you need on the vaccine you received.
One last thing to prep for? If anecdotal Instagram evidence is any indication of what the second vax day is like, you might also want to bring some tissues. Those almost-to-the-finish-line tears could come for you too.
Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, M.D.
Dr. Schubert Perotte, M.D.