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What is COVID-19? — COVID-19 stands for "coronavirus disease 2019." It is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2. The virus first appeared in late 2019 and quickly spread around the world.
What are vaccines? — Vaccines are a way to prevent certain serious or deadly infections. When a person gets a vaccine, this is called "vaccination" or "immunization."
To understand how vaccines work, it helps to understand what happens when you get an infection. Infections are caused by germs, such as bacteria or viruses. When a germ gets into your body, it multiplies (makes copies of itself) and attacks, which can make you sick. Your "immune system," or infection-fighting system, recognizes that the germ should not be there. In response, it starts to make proteins called "antibodies" to fight the germ.
There are different types of vaccines. They all work by causing your body to make antibodies, like it would if you had an infection. This prepares your immune system to fight off germs if you come into contact with them in the future. Most vaccines come as shots, although some come in other forms.
Thanks to vaccines, the number of people who die from infections has gone way down.
Why should I get the COVID-19 vaccine? — Getting vaccinated lowers your chances of getting infected. If you do get infected, you will be much less likely to get severely ill if you have been vaccinated.
In addition to protecting yourself, getting vaccinated will also help protect other people, including those who are at higher risk of getting very sick or dying. It also protects people who can't get a vaccine, like young babies. Even if you are not worried about getting very sick yourself, you could still spread the virus to others, even without realizing it.
How do COVID-19 vaccines work? — Multiple COVID-19 vaccines have been developed. They work in slightly different ways.
In the US, there are several COVID-19 vaccines available. All of these have been found to work very well in preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19. They include:
●mRNA vaccines – There are 2 available "mRNA vaccines." mRNA refers to genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19. This genetic material is used in the vaccine. It gives the body instructions to make a specific piece of protein that is normally found on the virus. In response, the immune system then makes antibodies that can recognize and attack the virus in the future.
The mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 are made by the Pfizer and Moderna companies. It is available to people age 6 months and older.
●Recombinant protein vaccine – This type of vaccine contains a version of a specific protein that is found in the virus. It is combined with another ingredient to help trigger the immune system. The immune system then makes antibodies that can recognize and attack the virus in the future. Other vaccines, such as those used to prevent hepatitis B and shingles, work in a similar way.
The recombinant protein vaccine for COVID-19 is made by the Novavax company. It is available to people age 12 years and older.
Different COVID-19 vaccines are available in other countries.
Which vaccine should I choose? — In the US, experts recommend getting an mRNA vaccine (either Pfizer or Moderna). Studies have found that they are safe and work well. In the fall of 2023, both mRNA vaccines were updated for the 2023 to 2024 season. The current versions were made to protect against the most common variants.
The Novavax vaccine is still an option for people age 12 and older who cannot or choose not to get an mRNA vaccine. Any of the available vaccines is better than none. However, this vaccine has not yet been updated for the 2023 to 2024 season.
How many vaccines do I need? — Experts recommend the updated 2023 to 2024 vaccine for people age 6 months and older. The number of doses depends on your age and health:
●Healthy people over age 5 years – 1 dose.
●Children age 6 months to 4 years – At least 1 dose. The number of doses depends on whether the child has had a COVID vaccine in the past.
●People with a weak immune system – At least 1 dose. The number of doses depends on whether you have had a COVID vaccine in the past. People with a weak immune system include those who have had an organ transplant, have certain health conditions, or take certain medicines.
If you have questions about what vaccine to get or which you have had in the past, ask your doctor or nurse.
Does the COVID-19 vaccine cause side effects? — It can. Temporary side effects are common, and can include:
●Pain where you got the shot (upper arm)
●Feeling very tired
While side effects can be annoying, they should not last longer than a day or 2. Some people do not have bothersome side effects at all. If you do have side effects, this does not mean that you are sick. It just means your immune system is responding to the vaccine.
Vaccines also sometimes cause more serious side effects, but these are rare:
●Severe allergic reactions to vaccines are rare. If you have had a reaction to the vaccine or its ingredients in the past, you might need to talk to an allergy expert. They can help you figure out if you should get the COVID-19 vaccine. People who do get the vaccine might be monitored for 15 to 30 minutes to make sure that they do not have an allergic reaction.
●A very small number of people developed inflammation of the heart muscle after receiving an mRNA (Pfizer or Moderna) or recombinant protein (Novavax) vaccine. This is called "myocarditis." Most cases have been in teen or young adult males. This side effect is extremely rare, and is usually mild and treatable if it does happen.
For most people, the benefits of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 are much greater than the risks. If you had a COVID-19 vaccine within the last 3 weeks, let your doctor or nurse know right away if you have any concerning symptoms. These include chest pain, trouble breathing, or leg swelling.
Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine? — No. You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine. The mRNA and recombinant protein vaccines do not contain any type of virus.
How do I know the vaccine is safe? — COVID-19 vaccines were developed very quickly. Because of this, some people wonder if they are safe. The answer is yes, the COVID-19 vaccines had to go through the same process as other vaccines to test them for safety. This involved running "clinical trials" with lots of people who volunteered to try the vaccine. The volunteers included people of all ages and ethnicities. During these trials, researchers studied how well the vaccines work and how many people had side effects. The results were reviewed by doctors and other experts who do not work for the drug companies that made the vaccines. These experts agreed that the vaccines are safe and effective enough to be given to the public.
Since COVID-19 vaccines became available, billions of doses have been given. So we have a lot of information about their safety.
Do I still need the vaccine if I have had COVID-19? — Yes. Experts recommend getting vaccinated even if you had COVID-19 in the past. People who get COVID-19 do develop antibodies that likely provide some protection against getting infected again. But it is not known exactly how long antibodies last after a person recovers. Also, the antibodies that you get from a vaccine might give you stronger protection against new virus variants.
What if I am pregnant? — The COVID-19 vaccine is safe to get during pregnancy. Experts recommend that pregnant people get the vaccine. Pregnant people might be more likely to get seriously ill if they get COVID-19, so getting vaccinated is especially important.
What if I have a weak immune system? — If your immune system is weaker than normal, the COVID-19 vaccine might not work as well as in other people. But it still provides good protection, and getting vaccinated is still very important. That's because you have a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 if you do get infected. Experts recommend that people with a weak immune system get extra doses of the vaccine. The number of doses you need depends on your situation and which vaccines you have had in the past.
After getting vaccinated, you might want to continue wearing a mask in some situations. If you have a health condition or take a medicine that weakens your immune system, talk with your doctor or nurse about how best to protect yourself.
What if I have other questions? — You can find more information about COVID-19 vaccines through the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/index.html.
Be careful with information you find on the internet or social media. In some cases, it can be hard to tell what is true and what is false. This is especially dangerous if people share health information that is not based on science or evidence. Your doctor or nurse can help answer your questions or direct you to sources that you can trust.
Patient education: COVID-19 overview (The Basics)
Patient education: COVID-19 and children (The Basics)
Patient education: COVID-19 and pregnancy (The Basics)
Patient education: Long COVID (The Basics)
Patient education: What you should know about vaccines (The Basics)
Patient education: COVID-19 tests (The Basics)
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