As the vaccine rollout continues and the world begins to open up again, lots of us are looking forward to receiving our jabs and getting back to our normal lives. We asked expert Dr Nikki Kanani for a rundown on everything you need to know after getting yours.
In some much-needed good news, the UK continues to successfully roll out its coronavirus vaccines. Restaurants, pubs, cinemas and hugs have already been made possible by the high vaccination rate, with almost 40 million people having received a first dose.
Now, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that, as of this week, those aged 25-29 will be invited to get their jabs. However, lots of us still have questions about the vaccine, and rumours continue to circulate about its after effects.
We asked Dr Nikki Kanani, Medical Director for Primary Care at NHS England and NHS Improvement, and the woman responsible for leading the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout in primary care, what you can expect after yours – from side-effects and bad periods to whether you can drink alcohol and when you’ll be fully protected.
Will I experience side effects?
After her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, 32-year-old Laura Graham felt completely normal. But her second, she says, “really took it out of me for a day. I basically felt like I had a bad flu for 24 hours and then it just passed.”
This experience is completely normal, says Dr Kanani. “Just like all medicines, vaccines can cause side effects – just like when you’ve been on a long haul holiday or had a vaccination like Tetanus or Hepatitis A, or how some people feel a bit shivery when they’ve had their annual flu jab,” she says. “Most of the side effects are mild and don’t last very long, and not everyone gets them.”
Common side effects will usually emerge one or two days after your vaccination and can include a combination of a sore arm, tiredness, headaches, aches, and feeling or being sick.
Despite speculation to the contrary, says Dr Kanani, different brands of the vaccine, and different doses, have similar side effects. “But everyone experiences side effects differently, and might have a different experience for each dose of the vaccine,” she points out. “When the clinical trials were carried out, some of the people taking part actually experienced side effects with the placebo.”
Since the vaccination programme began, rumours have circulated that these side effects might affect you differently depending on the strength of your immune system. But, says Dr Kanani, “there is no evidence that people who experience more side effects have stronger immune systems, or that their bodies have a better long term immune response.”
For Laura, while unpleasant, her side effects were easily manageable and well worth the vaccine. “Paracetamol made it a bit better and my work were really understanding so I just slept and watched a lot of Netflix until it passed” she says. “It was no big deal compared to the thought of getting Covid.”
When should I worry about side effects?
If you do experience side effects, Dr Kanani advises taking a painkiller such as paracetamol and resting as much as possible. Most are mild and will pass quickly, but if you have a high temperature that lasts longer than two days, or if you develop a new, continuous cough or a change to your sense of smell or taste, you may have Covid and should get tested as soon as possible.
After reports of an extremely rare blood clotting problem affecting a very small number of people who have had the AstraZeneca vaccine, most people under 40 without underlying health conditions will now be offered an alternative. For those over 40, says Dr Kanani, “the benefits [of being vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine] far outweigh any rare risk of clotting problems.”
Symptoms that may indicate a more serious problem will occur between four days and four weeks after vaccination and include unusual headaches - those that don’t respond to painkillers, are worse when lying down or bending over, or that occur with blurred vision, nausea, drowsiness or seizures. They can also include shortness of breath, chest pain, leg swelling, persistent tummy pain, or a rash that looks like small bruises or bleeding under the skin. In this scenario, you should call 111 immediately, advises Dr Kanani. But, she stresses, these serious side effects remain extremely rare.
Similarly, serious allergic reactions to the vaccine are also very rare. If you’ve ever had a serious allergic reaction to anything, you should tell healthcare staff before you are vaccinated - and if you’ve had a serious reaction to a previous dose of the same vaccine or to any of its ingredients, you shouldn’t take the vaccine. But serious allergic reactions are unusual and those that do occur usually happen within minutes of receiving the vaccine. “Staff giving the vaccine are trained to deal with allergic reactions and will treat them immediately,” Dr Kanani says.
Can I get back to my normal life straight after my vaccine?
It might be tempting to plan a celebratory pub night or party after your vaccine, but experts say it’s important to keep exercising caution. Your first dose will begin to protect you three-four weeks after vaccination, but, says Dr Kanani, “it’s important to have both doses of the vaccine to give you longer lasting protection.”
“And remember, there’s a chance you might still get Covid-19 or spread it to someone else even if you have the vaccine,” she continues. “So please keep being sensible and following the guidance - wash your hands frequently and open windows wherever possible.”
As for a celebratory toast, Dr Kanani says yes, you can drink alcohol afterwards, “but remember, you might feel some after effects of the vaccine, and drinking alcohol could make you feel worse.”
Side effects and women
After her first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, 29-year-old Maxine Davies noticed that her first period post-vaccination was particularly bad. “It was extremely heavy, and lasted much longer than usual,” she says. “Bad cramping is normal for me, but the level of pain was significantly worse.”
Dr Kanani says menstrual issues are not a known side effect of the Covid-19 vaccination. But, she says, “in some of the data reported to the The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), there have been some reports of increased or decreased bleeding.”
And, she says, there’s also no evidence to suggest that our gender has any impact on possible side effects or their severity at all.
Ultimately, while you might expect some short-term aches and pains - and perhaps a worse-than-usual hangover - your vaccine shouldn’t have any major effect on you beyond building up your protection against Covid-19.
For those with specific concerns or who want to read about different vaccinations in depth, Dr Kanani recommends starting with the NHS website. But, she emphasises, “getting the vaccine is the single most important step anyone can take to protect ourselves, our families and our communities against Covid-19.”
“When you get your invitation, book your appointment and join the tens of millions who have already been jabbed.”