Avoid pain relief medications just before getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but they are “perfectly fine” to take after, experts say.
Headache, fever, body aches and chills: While these are completely normal side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine – and a good sign your immune system is working – they can be unpleasant.
To minimize the discomfort, some Americans may turn to pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Others worry those medications could blunt the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Studies on the subject are sparse and inconsistent, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend against the preventive use of pain relievers,though they allow them if symptoms develop after.
In a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Virology, researchers found nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can reduce the production of antibodies and affect other aspects of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Researchers said the study’s results raised the possibility that pain relievers such as ibuprofen could alter the immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, who was not affiliated with the study, speculates that an altered response could be caused by reducing inflammation triggered by the immune system.
“The immune system generates a response through controlled inflammation. (Pain relievers) can reduce the production of inflammatory mediators,” she said. “So, this is the potential mechanism for a reduced immune response to vaccination if you take these medications.”
But Dr. Marian Michaels, a member of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s COVID-19 vaccine advisory committee, says studies have shown the immune system responds differently to the COVID-19 vaccine than it does to natural infection.
“We believe that the (immune) response to the vaccine is actually a better response than the wild-type virus with COVID-19,” said Michaels, who is also a pediatric infectious disease physician at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “For that very reason, even for someone who has had the infection in the past … we recommend that people still receive the vaccine.”
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One 2016 study from Duke University looked at the effectiveness of various vaccines among children and found those who took pain relievers before getting their regularly scheduled shots had fewer antibodies than those who didn’t.
But the few studies that exist on pain relievers and vaccines are not robust enough to draw conclusions, experts say, as the children in the 2016 study who took pain relievers and showed fewer antibodies still had a sufficient immune response to provide protection.
There’s no data that shows a reduced immune response if the medications are taken after getting the vaccine to treat side effects, Kelley added.
“It’s perfectly fine to take NSAIDs or Tylenol if you are feeling unwell after vaccination,” Kelley said. “The symptoms you are experiencing indicate that your immune system is functioning normally and that the immune response is ongoing.”
Michaels notes that study participants were not prohibited to take pain relievers in either the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 trials and efficacy rates were still over 95%.
“While I don’t have the exact numbers of people in the research study … I’m sure a number of them took acetaminophen or ibuprofen because 70% had mild (side effects to the vaccine),” she said. “And yet, there was still an immunologic response.”
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