What to Expect When You Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19

What happens at the vaccination site and how you may feel after the shot

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 Vaccine at a mass vaccination site at The Forum arena in Inglewood, California, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.
A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, at a mass vaccination site in Inglewood, Calif.

Though it may seem to be slow going, vaccine distribution in the U.S. is picking up—more than 2 million people in the U.S. are now receiving vaccines each day, and the country should have enough to fully vaccinate every adult in the U.S. by the end of May, according to President Joe Biden. The president has also instructed states, tribes, and territories to open up vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1.

All of which is to say: While supplies are still limited, your turn to roll up your sleeve probably isn’t that far off.

With that in mind, here’s what to know about getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

How will you know when it’s your turn to be vaccinated?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided guidance on who should be vaccinated when, but states can and do develop their own rules. So check your state’s health department website for information. (Use this tool from the CDC to find contact information for your state’s health department.) Your primary healthcare provider, if you have one, may also notify you when you become eligible, by phone, text, or email, or through your online health portal.

Where will you go and how can you make an appointment?

If your healthcare provider offers the shot, you may be able to schedule the appointment through them. They could offer the shot at their office or at another location, including some hospitals.

More on Covid-19

Increasingly, pharmacies are also offering the vaccine, says William Schaffner, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. VaccineFinder, a website operated by the Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with the CDC, can help people in several states find pharmacies near them that offer the vaccine. More providers are expected to be added in the coming weeks.

Or check your state, county, or municipal website, which may have a tool that connects you to local vaccination sites, including the ones they oversee. Those could be in local or state-run facilities, such as health departments, community centers, schools, and mass vaccination sites set up in stadiums or arenas.

Vaccine availability is subject to change, and appointments are required at most locations, according to the CDC. If you have questions, it’s best to contact the location.

Note that you may need to get vaccinated in the state where you live or work.

Will you have to pay?

No, and that’s regardless of whether you have insurance, as long as you live in the U.S. Some providers may charge a fee for administering the vaccine, but the government has mandated that insurers—or the government, in the case of uninsured individuals—cover that.

Note that you might incur a bill if you get a vaccine as part of a doctor’s appointment for another reason—say, for a checkup or to treat an injury—and get a vaccine as part of that. But you shouldn’t have to pay anything for the vaccine itself.

Anyone who asks for a payment to put you on a list, make an appointment for you, or reserve a spot in line is a scammer, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Read more about how to avoid COVID-19 vaccine scams.

Who will give you the shot?

To vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, many health professionals are giving the vaccine, including active, retired, and student nurses, doctors, and pharmacists.

How long will you wait at the vaccination site?

That can vary widely, from a few minutes to hours. When you make your appointment, ask for an estimate of how long you can expect to be there and whether you will need to wait outside or in your car.

After the shot, expect to wait 15 minutes before leaving, so healthcare providers can make sure you don’t experience a severe allergic reaction. If you’ve had a serious reaction to any vaccine in the past, expect to wait 30 minutes. While such reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine are extremely rare and treatable, it’s good to be monitored just in case.

During that 15 minutes, you may be scheduled for your second, follow-up dose. If you received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, that should be three weeks later. For the Moderna vaccine, it will be in four weeks. (The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does not require a second dose.) If you are not offered the follow-appointment, you may have to schedule the second dose on your own, in the same way you did your first.

What side effects can you expect?

Common side effects include a sore arm, swollen lymph nodes under your arm, muscle and joint soreness, headache, fever, and gastrointestinal issues, says John E. Wherry, PhD, a professor of immunology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Such reactions, he stresses, are the vaccine doing its job of inducing an immune response to protect against COVID-19.

The severity of those symptoms varies significantly. “Some people have very little besides a sore arm,” Wherry says. “Other people seem to be really knocked on their rear for the better part of the day.”

Some research suggests that women report more side effects than men, that older people may be less likely to experience side effects with certain vaccines, and that side effects are more severe after the second dose.

While side effects show that your body is responding to the vaccine, you don’t need to worry if you don’t experience any, says Schaffner at Vanderbilt. Research has shown the vaccines to be very effective in people of all ages, even older ones. So when it comes to experiencing side effects, “don’t freak out if you are, and don’t freak out if you aren’t,” Schaffner says.

If you usually sleep on one side, consider asking for the shot on the opposite arm, so the pain is less likely to bother you while in bed.

Most side effects should recede within 24 to 48 hours after vaccination.

How can you treat side effects?

Don’t take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) before getting the shot; doing so might undermine the vaccine’s effectiveness. But it’s okay to take either afterward to ease pain or fever, provided your healthcare provider says that these drugs are otherwise safe for you, according to the CDC.

Experts also recommend taking it easy for a day after the shot to give yourself a chance to recover.

How long after the shot until you are fully protected?

If you got the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, you’ll have some protection about two weeks after your first dose, but you aren’t considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after your second dose, according to the CDC.

For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose, you’ll have some protection in the first two weeks and even better protection after four.

The research from the vaccines’ clinical trials suggests that all approved vaccines substantially reduce, though don’t eliminate, your risk of developing the disease and, if you do develop it, of having serious complications. And the more people get the vaccine, and the more time that passes, the more scientists will know about how well the vaccines work in the real world. Read more about how much protection you can expect from the COVID-19 vaccine.

How long will that protection last?

That’s still unclear, especially with the new COVID-19 variants emerging. If it turns out that vaccine-induced immunity wanes after time, occasional booster shots may be needed, experts say.

Can you still spread the disease after you are vaccinated?

While early research suggests vaccinated people are less likely to spread COVID-19, that’s not certain, which is one reason the CDC still recommends that vaccinated people wear masks and take social distancing precautions while in public.

In private spaces, restrictions can be relaxed with small groups of people who are all fully vaccinated. “You can have your friend over for dinner” if you’ve both been vaccinated, says Brianne Barker, PhD, an assistant professor of biology at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

“You could probably hug them, sure.” However, you’ll need to continue to take precautions when visiting with those who are unvaccinated or if other family members in a household are unvaccinated and at increased risk of severe COVID-19.

Read more about what you can and can’t do after being vaccinated against COVID-19.

Head shot of Laura Entis, a freelance writer for Health CIA

Laura Entis

Laura Entis is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist focusing on health, business, and science. In addition to Consumer Reports, her work has appeared in Fortune, The Guardian, Outside, and GQ, among other publications.