Looking to get the facts about the new COVID-19 vaccines? Here’s what you need to know about the different vaccines and the benefits of getting vaccinated.
Vaccines to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are perhaps the best hope for ending the pandemic. But as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues authorizing emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines, you likely have questions. Find out about the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines, how they work, the possible side effects and the importance of continuing to take infection prevention steps.
COVID-19 vaccine benefits
What are the benefits of getting a COVID-19 vaccine?
A COVID-19 vaccine might:
- Prevent you from getting COVID-19 or from becoming seriously ill or dying due to COVID-19
- Prevent you from spreading the COVID-19 virus to others
- Add to the number of people in the community who are protected from getting COVID-19 — making it harder for the disease to spread and contributing to herd immunity
- Prevent the COVID-19 virus from spreading and replicating, which allows it to mutate and possibly become more resistant to vaccines
Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine even if I’ve already had COVID-19?
Getting COVID-19 might offer some natural protection or immunity from reinfection with the virus that causes COVID-19. But it’s not clear how long this protection lasts. Because reinfection is possible and COVID-19 can cause severe medical complications, it’s recommended that people who have already had COVID-19 get a COVID-19 vaccine. If you were treated for COVID-19 with monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma, wait 90 days before getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
Safety and side effects of COVID-19 vaccines
What COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized and how do they work?
Currently, several COVID-19 vaccines are in clinical trials. The FDA will review the results of these trials before approving COVID-19 vaccines for use. But because there is an urgent need for COVID-19 vaccines and the FDA‘s vaccine approval process can take months to years, the FDA will first be giving emergency use authorization to COVID-19 vaccines based on less data than is normally required. The data must show that the vaccines are safe and effective before the FDA can give emergency use authorization. Vaccines with FDA emergency use authorization include:
- Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective in preventing the COVID-19 virus with symptoms in people age 16 and older. The vaccine is 100% effective in preventing the COVID-19 virus in children ages 12 through 15. This vaccine is for people age 12 and older. It requires two injections given 21 days apart. The second dose can be given up to six weeks after the first dose, if needed.
- Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is 94% effective in preventing the COVID-19 virus with symptoms. This vaccine is for people age 18 and older. It requires two injections given 28 days apart. The second dose can be given up to six weeks after the first dose, if needed.
- Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. In clinical trials, this vaccine was 66% effective in preventing the COVID-19 virus with symptoms — as of 14 days after vaccination. The vaccine also was 85% effective at preventing severe disease with the COVID-19 virus — at least 28 days after vaccination. This vaccine is for people age 18 and older. It requires one injection. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recommended that use of this vaccine continue in the U.S. because the benefits outweigh the risks. If you are given this vaccine, you should be educated about the possible risks and symptoms of a blood clotting problem.
Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA). Coronaviruses have a spikelike structure on their surface called an S protein. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines give cells instructions for how to make a harmless piece of an S protein. After vaccination, your cells begin making the protein pieces and displaying them on cell surfaces. Your immune system will recognize that the protein doesn’t belong there and begin building an immune response and making antibodies.
The Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is a vector vaccine. In this type of vaccine, genetic material from the COVID-19 virus is inserted into a different kind of weakened live virus, such as an adenovirus. When the weakened virus (viral vector) gets into your cells, it delivers genetic material from the COVID-19 virus that gives your cells instructions to make copies of the S protein. Once your cells display the S proteins on their surfaces, your immune system responds by creating antibodies and defensive white blood cells. If you become infected with the COVID-19 virus, the antibodies will fight the virus.
Viral vector vaccines can’t cause you to become infected with the COVID-19 virus or the viral vector virus. Also, the genetic material that’s delivered doesn’t become part of your DNA.
Can a COVID-19 vaccine give you COVID-19?
No. The COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed in the U.S. don’t use the live virus that causes COVID-19. As a result, the COVID-19 vaccines can’t cause you to become sick with COVID-19 or shed any vaccine components.
Keep in mind that it will take a few weeks for your body to build immunity after getting a COVID-19 vaccination. As a result, it’s possible that you could become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or after being vaccinated.
What are the possible general side effects of a COVID-19 vaccine?
A COVID-19 vaccine can cause mild side effects after the first or second dose, including:
- Pain, redness or swelling where the shot was given
- Muscle pain
- Joint pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Feeling unwell
- Swollen lymph nodes
You’ll likely be monitored for 15 minutes after getting a COVID-19 vaccine to see if you have an immediate reaction. Most side effects go away in a few days. Side effects after the second dose might be more intense. Some people have no side effects.
A COVID-19 vaccine may cause side effects similar to signs and symptoms of COVID-19. If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and you develop symptoms more than three days after getting vaccinated or the symptoms last more than two days, self-isolate and get tested.
What are the long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines?
Can COVID-19 vaccines affect the heart?
In the U.S., there has been an increase in reported cases of myocarditis and pericarditis after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination, particularly in male adolescents and young adults age 16 and older. Myocarditis is the inflammation of the heart muscle, while pericarditis is the inflammation of the lining outside the heart. These reports are rare. The CDC is investigating to see if there is any relationship to COVID-19 vaccination.
Of the cases reported, the problem happened more often after the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and typically within several days after COVID-19 vaccination. Most of the people who received care felt better after receiving medicine and resting. Symptoms to watch for include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of having a fast-beating, fluttering or pounding heart
If you or your child has any of these symptoms within a week of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, seek medical care.
What is the connection between the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine and Guillain-Barre syndrome?
Some people who received the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine have developed Guillain-Barre syndrome. This is a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. The chances of this happening are very low.
Symptoms most often appeared within 42 days of vaccination. Seek immediate medical care after getting the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine if you have:
- Weakness or tingling sensations, especially in the legs or arms, that worsens and spreads to other body parts
- Difficulty walking
- Difficulty with facial movements, including speaking, chewing or swallowing
- Double vision or inability to move eyes
- Difficulty with bladder control or bowel function
What are the symptoms of a blood clotting reaction to the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine?
Use of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine might increase the risk of a rare and serious blood clotting disorder. Nearly all of those affected have been women ages 18 to 49, with the disorder happening at a rate of 7 for every 1 million vaccinated women in this age group. For women age 50 and older and men of all ages, the disorder is even more rare.
The FDA and the CDC have recommended that use of the vaccine in the U.S. can continue because the benefits outweigh the risks. (36) Evidence of these blood clots haven’t been reported in the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
Serious side effects of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine can occur within three weeks of vaccination and require emergency care. Possible symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent stomach pain
- Severe or persistent headaches or blurred vision
- Chest pain
- Leg swelling
- Easy bruising or tiny red spots on the skin beyond the injection site
Mild to moderate headaches and muscle aches are common in the first three days after vaccination and don’t require emergency care.
Variants and COVID-19 vaccines
Do the COVID-19 vaccines protect against the COVID-19 variants?
In the U.S., the delta (B.1.617.2) variant is now the most common COVID-19 variant. It is nearly twice as contagious as earlier variants and might cause more severe illness.
While research suggests that COVID-19 vaccines are slightly less effective against the variants, the vaccines still appear to provide protection against severe COVID-19. For example:
- Early research from the U.K. suggests that, after full vaccination, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is 88% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 virus. The vaccine is also 96% effective at preventing severe disease with the COVID-19 virus caused by the delta variant.
- Early research from Canada suggests that, after one dose, the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is 72% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 virus caused by the delta variant. One dose of the vaccine is also 96% effective at preventing severe disease with the COVID-19 virus caused by the delta variant.
- The Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is 85% effective at preventing severe disease with the COVID-19 virus caused by the delta variant, according to data released by Johnson & Johnson.