As millions line up for a COVID-19 vaccine, many are scared about the possible side effects. Although rare, some people will suffer moderate discomfort that may interfere with their daily routine for about 24-72 hours. These side effects include headaches, nausea, fever, and localized pain in the site of injection, which should be the shoulder.
Concerning the latter, there’s quite a variety of sore arm symptoms. These range from no reaction at all to an annoying aching sensation, and anything in between.
Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines that inject a small piece of genetic code that instructs cells to produce a tiny protein of the virus, but not the virus itself, known as the spike protein. It is through this crown-like structure that the virus latches onto cells in our respiratory tract and triggers the infection.
The presence of this protein in the body sets off the production of antibodies specific to the coronavirus such that when we encounter the pathogen in daily life, the body is primmed to prevent infection. Since neither vaccine contains the virus itself, it’s impossible to get sick with COVID-19 from them.
It’s quite normal to feel a temporary dull ache in the muscle of the deltoid following vaccination. This is due to having tissue punctured by a very pointy object and having a volume of fluid injected in the muscle rather than the contents of the vaccine itself.
How to mitigate shoulder pain from the vaccine
Anticipating the discomfort caused by the vaccine, some are taking over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen before entering the vaccination facility. This could be a bad idea.
According to a study published in the Journal of Virology, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are frequently used for the relief of pain and inflammation, could modulate both SARS-CoV-2 infection and the body’s response to the virus. Among other things, this study ” raises the possibility that NSAIDs may alter the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 vaccination,” said the authors of the report.
The conclusions of this study were drawn from human cells cultured in a petri dish and mouse models. Yet people have been taking ibuprofen for shoulder pain from flu shots for years, and clinicians haven’t noticed a sizable effect. But although this study does not bear evidence that ibuprofen and other NSAIDs could inhibit the immune response in humans, perhaps it’s for the best you stay away from these drugs before and shortly after vaccination.
Swelling, redness, and soreness are common after taking the shot can last 24 to 48 hours. In order to reduce the discomfort, you can try icing the injection site. Applying a clean, cool, wet washcloth over the area can work well too.
And since it may take a day or two before your arm is fully recovered, you might want to ask that you get the shot in your non-dominant arm, which for most people is the left shoulder. This way, if you have to write or handle other tools, at least you’re not aggravating the muscle even more.
When getting the vaccine, try not to tense your arm so the tissue doesn’t break so much when it is punctured. Also, move your arm lightly or exercise after getting the shot to increase blood flow and help disperse the vaccine throughout the area.
A little pain is a small price to pay
We’re leaving unprecedented and bizarre times. But on the upside, we’ve got multiple vaccines in less than 12 months since the coronavirus turned into a pandemic. That’s just mindblowing when you think about it, and we should all be very grateful.
Although the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have received emergency use authorization, there is nothing rushed about their efficacy or safety. These are tried and tested preventive medicines that work. But, yes, some people will experience some minor discomfort for a couple of days and approximately one in around 100,000 people or so may experience an allergic reaction, which is why you have to stay around the vaccination facility for at least 15 minutes after you get the shot.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.