What to Expect When You Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

What to Expect When You Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

This article is for anyone who wants to learn more about COVID-19. The goal of this patient education activity is to help patients and their care partners talk to their doctor about COVID-19 vaccines and engage in shared decision-making.

You will learn about:

  • COVID-19 and how it can affect you

  • How your immune system and vaccines work to protect you

  • What to expect when you get a COVID-19 vaccine

  • Possible side effects from the vaccine

  • Questions to ask your doctor or pharmacist

Medicines listed in this activity have either a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval or have been given an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA to treat or prevent COVID-19.

The information on COVID-19 is continually changing. The content in this activity is accurate based on the information that was available at the time of its publication. This resource is provided for educational and informational purposes only. We do not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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COVID-19: Overview

COVID-19 is an illness caused by a type of virus called a coronavirus. Exposure can cause an infection that usually starts in the nose, sinuses, and throat.

COVID-19 spreads from person to person mainly by droplets in the air that form when someone who's infected talks, coughs, or sneezes. The virus can then infect someone else when these droplets enter their mouth, nose, or eyes.

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How COVID-19 Can Affect You

Most people who get COVID-19 will have mild or no symptoms. But for others, it can be severe and even cause death. COVID-19 can damage many different body systems and organs and lead to complications (additional problems) that can be long lasting.

Anyone can get COVID-19, but it's especially dangerous for the elderly. Being pregnant, smoking, or having certain conditions -- such as diabetes, high blood pressure, lung problems, or obesity -- could also put adults, of any age, at a higher risk for severe illness.

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Your Immune System: Your Body's Natural Defense System

Your immune system is made up of different organs, cells, and proteins that work to protect you when you're exposed to outside invaders, such bacteria and viruses.

When you're exposed, your immune system is triggered and activates certain cells and proteins. This includes Y-shaped proteins called antibodies that are released into your bloodstream to attack the invader and fight off infection.

It can take several days or weeks for antibodies to develop. But they stay in your body and can recognize and defend against the invader if you're exposed again. This is how you develop protection -- or immunity -- against a future infection.

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Y-shaped antibodies (in green) can attack an outside invader like a virus (in red) to protect you from infection.

How Your Immune System and Vaccines Work Together

Vaccines are given before an infection to try to prevent disease by triggering your immune system to make antibodies to a specific invader. Once antibodies develop, you can have immunity without having to get the disease first. A vaccine is a safer way to help build immunity than getting the disease.

Currently, there's no cure for COVID-19, and even if you feel healthy, there's no way to know how your body will react if you get infected. You run the risk of severe illness and complications if you get COVID-19, so preventing it is important.

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Vaccines for COVID-19

Because COVID-19 can cause long-term damage and be life-threatening, it's important to be protected against getting it and spreading it to others. You can't get COVID-19 from the vaccine because it doesn't contain the live virus.

The COVID-19 vaccines currently being used in the United States have an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA. A vaccine may get an EUA when the FDA has found that the known and potential benefits of using it outweigh the known and potential risks.

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When You Get Your COVID-19 Vaccine

When you get your COVID-19 vaccine, be sure to ask which one you're getting and when you'll be fully protected. Depending on which vaccine is used, you'll get 1 shot, or 2 shots a few weeks apart. Be sure to get each shot when you're scheduled or you may not become fully protected.

Also, after getting your shot, be sure to follow the instructions and stay at the location for as long as they ask you to. This is so they can make sure your body doesn't have a serious reaction to the vaccine.

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What to Expect About Immunity

For any COVID-19 vaccine, wait the length of time you're advised to after your final shot to make sure you're fully protected. This is because it takes a few weeks to make the antibodies needed for immunity. It's still possible to get COVID-19 after getting the vaccine if your body hasn't had enough time to build protection.

Also be sure to check the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website at the end of this activity for the latest recommendations and guidance on how to help keep yourself and others safe after getting your vaccine. 

It's not yet known how long the vaccine will protect you, but new information is being learned about COVID-19 every day.

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Possible Side Effects

All vaccines can have side effects. Some that may happen with COVID-19 vaccines include:

  • Pain, redness, or swelling where the shot was given

  • Headache

  • Fatigue (tiredness)

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Muscle aches

  • Nausea

There is a very small chance that some people may develop:

  • A severe allergic reaction that usually happens within a few minutes to an hour after getting the shot

  • Blood clots in vessels in the brain, abdomen (belly), and legs, depending on which vaccine you get

Not all side effects are listed here. Ask your doctor, pharmacist, or the person giving you your vaccine for a full list and when you should contact your doctor or seek medical attention because of side effects.

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Pharmacist and professor Dr Lakesha M. Butler talks about what to expect when you get your COVID-19 vaccine, including possible side effects.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor or Pharmacist

Questions you can ask about the COVID-19 vaccine can include:

  • Which vaccines are available and how many shots will I need?

  • What are the possible side effects?

  • Where can I get a vaccine?

  • What should I do after getting the vaccine?

  • When will I be fully protected, and what can I do afterward?

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You have successfully completed the program: What to Expect When You Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Patient Handout

Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines

COVID-19 Vaccine FAQs

Benefits of Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine

Your COVID-19 Vaccination

How Do I Find a COVID-19 Vaccine?

When You've Been Fully Vaccinated

Authors and Disclosures


Lakesha M. Butler, PharmD

Clinical Professor, Pharmacy PracticeDirector of Diversity, Equity, and InclusionSouthern Illinois University Edwardsville

Disclosure: Lakesha M. Butler, PharmD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Clinician Reviewer

Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Senior Director, Learning & Development, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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