COVID-19 vaccines have been widely available, fully approved and monitored for safety over the past few years, but you might still be wondering if you and your loved ones should get one. Maybe you got one mid-pandemic but are unsure about an annual updated shot, or maybe you’re hesitant about starting vaccination for your kiddos.
To help clear the air and make the choice a little easier, we’ve compiled information that we hope is clear and helpful.
The COVID-19 vaccine helps you develop immunity to the virus that causes the disease without actually having to get sick.
There are three choices. Pfizer and Moderna are both mRNA vaccines, which work in very similar ways in the body. They may have slightly different trade names in the future – like Spikevax – but the technology to make and update the vaccines is the same. The third choice is Novavax. It is made using slightly different and more traditional vaccine technology, called protein subunit, and also offers excellent protection against COVID-19 infection and spread.
How they work
After receiving the mRNA shot (Pfizer or Moderna), your cells will learn to make copies of the spike protein on the surface of the virus. This will then cause the production of T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes (T-cells and B-cells for short), which help your immune system create the necessary antibodies that recognize and inactivate the COVID-19 virus, stopping it from being able to enter your cells, reproduce, and cause illness in the future. The process within your body is very similar after getting the Novavax vaccine. Your body learns from a portion of spike protein contained in the vaccine how to make antibodies to a part of the COVID-19 virus. It is important to note that none of the vaccines currently available actually contain the live COVID-19 virus.
Since it takes a few weeks for your body to produce the necessary T-cells and B-cells, it’s possible to contract the virus before the vaccine has a chance to make enough antibodies. The process of building immunity can cause some expected symptoms like a sore arm, fatigue or even fever. This is normal and shouldn’t last more than a couple of days. And many people don’t experience any side effects.
It’s unclear exactly how long immunity from COVID-19 infection and immunity from the vaccine last. From what we know now, it’s probable that we’ll all need a COVID-19 vaccine once a year, just like for the flu. This is because any type of COVID-19 immunity decreases over time, and COVID-19 variants are constantly changing to escape immunity developed from infection and/or vaccination.
The most obvious benefit of getting vaccinated is that it can help you not get COVID.
Although there can be breakthrough infections in those who are fully vaccinated, all three vaccines reduce your risk of getting seriously sick if you do contract the virus.
Beyond your personal health and time away from work and school, getting the vaccine can help protect people around you, including those at higher risk of becoming severely ill and those who cannot be vaccinated, like newborns. And outside your closest circle, it may also curb the overall spread of the virus. More vaccinated people means fewer people who are asymptomatic and spreading the virus.
The good news is that the vaccines are protecting people from getting sick, and those who do get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated are much less likely to become seriously ill, need hospitalization or die from it. Widespread vaccination is the key to decreasing the number and severity of cases.
So, how safe is the COVID-19 vaccine? Before any medication, treatment, or vaccine is approved for use in the United States, the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) requires it to go through clinical trials to show that it’s safe and effective. This means the benefits have to outweigh the known or potential risks.
Though the COVID-19 vaccines rolled out relatively quickly due to the urgency of the pandemic, no corners were cut. The data show not only that they’re safe but also that the benefits of getting vaccinated greatly outweigh the potential harm of contracting the virus and spreading it to others.
There are several ongoing safety monitoring systems that look for possible side effects or adverse reactions from the vaccines. In fact, the COVID-19 vaccines are the most intensely monitored vaccines in U.S. history.
There have been reports of inflammation of the heart muscle or the area surrounding the heart in adolescents and young adults who have recently been vaccinated. The CDC and FDA have acknowledged this increased risk in males younger than 30, and ongoing studies are underway to determine any possible long-term effects of this adverse event. Thankfully, to date, most cases of this inflammation (myocarditis or pericarditis) have responded well to treatment. Because these conditions are also potential complications during or after COVID-19 infection, it does not change the recommendation for vaccination in this group.
The CDC continues to recommend that all those 6 months of age and up get the vaccine, as the risk of developing this adverse reaction is much smaller than the risk of contracting COVID-19. Vaccine side effects for children are mild. The most common one is a sore arm. Because these conditions are also potential complications during or after COVID-19 infection, it does not change the recommendation for vaccination in this group.
What to consider
If you’ve experienced severe allergic reactions to other vaccines in the past or have an underlying health condition, chat with your healthcare provider before getting your COVID-19 vaccine.
If you’re breastfeeding
ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), the WHO (World Health Organization), and the CDC recommend the COVID-19 vaccine for those who are breastfeeding. Separately, there’s no need to stop breastfeeding after getting vaccinated.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
Updated December 2023
- “Vaccinating Pregnant and Lactating Patients Against COVID-19.” ACOG. December 21, 2020. https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/practice-advisory/articles/2020/12/vaccinating-pregnant-and-lactating-patients-against-covid-19.
- “Include children in COVID-19 vaccine trials.” AAP. November 17, 2020. https://www.aappublications.org/news/2020/11/17/covidvaccinetrials111720.
- “Different COVID-19 Vaccines.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 15, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines.html.
- “Benefits of Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 5, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/vaccine-benefits.html.
- “Ensuring the Safety of COVID-19 Vaccines in the United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 19, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety.html.
- “Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 13, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/how-they-work.html.
- “When Vaccine is Limited, Who Should Get Vaccinated First?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 8, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations.html.
- “Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 Vaccination.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 25, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/faq.html.
- “Vaccination Considerations for People who are Pregnant or Breastfeeding.”Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 7, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations/pregnancy.html.
- “COVID-19 Vaccines and Pregnancy.” ACOG. December 21, 2020. https://www.acog.org/en/advocacy/advocacy-and-covid-19/covid-19-vaccines-and-pregnancy.
- “The Moderna COVID-19 (mRNA-1273) vaccine: what you need to know.” World Health Organization. January 26, 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/the-moderna-covid-19-mrna-1273-vaccine-what-you-need-to-know.