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COVID-19 vaccine – what to expect

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

Your turn has come, you’ve booked your slot, it might be at a center you don’t know, but you're feeling ready. Let’s walk you through what to expect once you’re there, and top tips so your vaccine appointment runs smoothly.

What should I take with me?

Make sure you have a face mask to wear. Take your identification and a list of any medications you're on regularly. If you require a caregiver, they can come with you to the appointment but must also be wearing a face covering.

Top tip: Wear a short sleeve or sleeveless T-shirt and have your upper arm easily accessible, this is to avoid having to take off a long sleeve top in order to get to your arm where the vaccine is administered. It's given quite high up, near the shoulder.

What happens when I arrive there? What's the injection like?

It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to find your way around somewhere new. You might be lucky that your vaccine will be at your health clinic or a pharmacy you know, but more likely it will be at a different center. There will be signs to follow for where to go, and even if you know the place, make sure you look for arrows marking entry and exit – the center will be set up to help people flow in only one direction.

Once arrived, different centers will run in slightly different ways, but all will ask you the following important information: your name and date of birth – they will request your identification if you have it. You will be asked whether you are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, had a positive test in the last 28 days or have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive.

You will be asked to confirm if you take any specific medications, and whether you have any allergies to medication. They will ask if you have had an allergic reaction to any vaccines in the past, or a significant allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to anything previously.

The team greeting you will give you written information about the vaccine you will receive, specific to that particular brand and general things relevant to all the COVID-19 vaccines. They can answer any questions and explain anything that’s unclear.

Once your turn comes up, you will be moved to an area (a room or a make-shift cubicle) to receive your vaccine. The person administering the vaccine will check your details and allergies again, and this is another chance to ask any questions, after which you will be asked if you are happy to go ahead with the vaccine.

The procedure itself involves a tiny needle placed into your upper arm, into the muscle known as the deltoid. You may get a bandaid or piece of gauze to press on the area afterward, and this can come off 15 minutes later. You will receive a card that states the vaccine make, batch number and as a reminder – but don’t worry if you lose it, this information will also be stored digitally in your medical records held by your doctor.

You may then be moved to a waiting area, and – depending on the brand of vaccine – you may be asked to wait a further 15 minutes before heading home. This is because, although very rare, a very small number of people may have a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine which would occur soon afterward, so it is important to stay in a safe place should you need any medical attention. In total it will take just over half an hour from your appointment time.

Top tip: Take some water or a drink with you, things usually run smoothly but this is a big operation, so there may be a bit of waiting around.

Are the vaccination centers safe?

All the staff at the vaccination center will be wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) and practicing social distancing in order to keep you safe. Surfaces are cleaned thoroughly and disinfected between each person. Frontline health workers were prioritized in the initial rollout of the vaccine, and anyone volunteering from the general public will also have been offered the vaccine as a priority – all with a view to keeping you safe.

What should I expect in the days after the vaccine?

The vaccine itself is a small needle and should not be particularly painful. The most common side effects after having the vaccine are: a sore arm, tiredness, headache and mild flu-like symptoms like fever, chills and muscle aches. These side effects are normal and are due to your body’s immune system working to build up protection to COVID-19.

Effects tend to occur after one to two days and have usually disappeared after the third day. If you have a high ongoing temperature, severe symptoms, symptoms that are not improving after four or five days or you’re concerned, you should call your doctor for help and advice. It may not be vaccine side effects and it may be COVID-19 infection (caught before being vaccinated) or another illness causing symptoms.

You can’t catch COVID-19 from the vaccine.

It takes one to three weeks to build up immunity after having the vaccine, so you are vulnerable to catching COVID-19 during this time. Even after you have been vaccinated, you can keep your risk of catching the infection low by keeping your distance from others, wearing your face mask in shops and public places, and washing your hands regularly. It will take time for everyone to get their vaccines and for us all to be better protected.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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