The Second Vaccine Shot Affected Me for a Week
In my state (New Jersey), one of my medical conditions meant I qualified for a vaccine very early in the process. I signed up as soon as I was eligible. As a disabled person lucky enough to live in a state that prioritized people like me, I feel it is my duty to share my story for anyone looking forward to their own shots.
Let me be clear: this isn’t a horror story or anti-vax propaganda. Rather, this is a necessary part of making healthcare more accessible. On social media, people toss out statements like “Oh, it’s just a five-minute walk from the parking lot to the vaccine site” or “I had a fever for two days, so it wasn’t that bad.” Things that don’t warrant a second thought for you are near-insurmountable barriers for other people.
It is necessary to tell people the possible side effects so they can prepare accordingly. It is ableist and unrealistic to preemptively declare that the side effects can’t be a big deal because they were not a big deal for you.
When I told people that I got both my Pfizer shots, they didn’t ask about statistics or the mechanism of action. They just wanted to know how much it hurt. So that’s what this article is: my story of how much it hurt, and for how long, so that you can be better prepared for your own shots.
The First Shot
I got my first Pfizer shot at the Meadowlands megasite on February 17th, a Wednesday afternoon. My father went with me, and we were surprised at how simple it was. Members of the National Guard stood ready with wheelchairs and golf carts to shuttle disabled people from the parking lot, up the long entrance ramp, and to the check-in and vaccine stations. There were waiting dots on the floor spaced six feet apart, huge signs and stanchions directing traffic, and National Guard, FEMA, and state workers standing by to answer questions.
My father and I waited maybe 10 minutes to get to the check-in station then another few minutes for the vaccine station. I barely felt the needle. We sat on plastic folding chairs in the observation area for 15 minutes, then headed back home. On the ride home (masks on, windows open), we couldn’t stop talking about how easy it was.
At my parents’ house, I got changed and disinfected, then drove the hour and a half home. I knew from previous flu shots that my shot arm tends to get sore and weak after a vaccine. I needed to head home that night while I could still grip a steering wheel.
And that was pretty much it. My collarbone ached for two days and there was a low-level pulsing pain in my bicep area. It didn’t feel any different from sleeping on it funny. The sensation was certainly annoying, but it didn’t stop me from doing my daily activities.
The next shot was another story.
Saturday — The Second Shot
My second Pfizer shot was scheduled for noon on March 6th — a Saturday. Everything was different the second time around. The megasite was absolutely flooded with people. A member of the National Guard barked at people to stay in their cars until their scheduled appointment time. After standing next to my car for 10 minutes, the soldiers waved me through to wait in the outside line for another 20 minutes. Then, another 20 minutes of waiting inside. Though my appointment was scheduled for noon, I didn’t get to the vaccination station until roughly 12:45pm.
Again, I barely felt the shot. My parents (both of them this time) and I waited out the necessary 15 minutes then headed home. I laid down in my childhood bedroom for an hour (door closed, mask on, windows open) to make sure I didn’t get some surprise side effect.
When my arm started to ache, I hit the road to make it home before the pain really kicked in. I went to sleep on Saturday night with medium soreness in my arm.
Sunday — Side Effects Day 1
When I woke up on Sunday, I was sick. I was sweating, achy, exhausted. I had a fever and the associated chills and sweats. I ran both hot and cold, layering up only to discard the blankets twenty minutes later. My head was pounding and cottony. I knew I needed to drink water and have some food, but I had zero appetite or desire. It felt like a super-compressed flu.
I sat propped up on the couch, barely watching TV. Instead, I watched the clock. Time seemed to move even slower in my feverish brain. But I lasted a year alone — I knew I could last these hours.
The most concerning side effect was my swollen lymph node.
I tried to check Google to see if this was something worth calling a doctor about. I even asked my friends to do the research for me, as I could barely stay focused. All we found were some articles about a swollen lymph node potentially showing up on a mammogram.
But the lymph node in my left armpit was not just slightly swollen or only detectable by X-ray. It was visibly and palpably enlarged. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror without a shirt and lifted my arms parallel to the floor.
I almost looked like a mini weight loss before and after photo. My right armpit looked as normal as an armpit could look. It was smooth and curved with an obvious indentation in the armpit. The left side was swollen in the underarm — no visible hollow. The pectoral area below my collarbone was enlarged, too. I gently poked it and the skin was tight and hard to the touch.
But the weirdest part was how the lymph node felt internally. It didn’t just feel sore. It felt like an enormous sunburn, like a huge, bruised, infected cut weeping pus. I went to the mirror thinking that I would see some purple-and-green, Saw-quality injury. But it didn’t look like anything, except bigger than the other side.
It was literally unbelievable to me. For three days, I routinely checked my underarm to see if it would become black-and-blue or otherwise line up with what I could feel on the inside. But it never looked bad, it only felt bad. Real bad.
Raising my arm was painful, but resting my arm against my side was painful, too. I kept pulling my shirt away from my armpit, thinking that it was getting stuck to the open wound I so clearly felt there. But there was no external injury, just a disconnect between sensations in my body.
I took a pillow to put in my armpit, keeping my bicep from touching my side. By leaning on my right side and resting my left arm gently on the pillow, I was able to manage the worst of the pain as long as I didn’t move around too much.
The pain made it hard to sleep. I didn’t nap during the day because I simply could not get comfortable enough to ignore the sensations radiating out from my left lymph node. At night, my body would roll over into its normal sleeping position, aggravate the underarm pain, and wake me up. Then the combination of vaccine side effects and a lack of deep sleep made me feel even worse.
Besides the lymph node issues, I was also having some new symptoms with my veins and my joints.
My joints are bad even on a good day. It’s not unusual to crack my joints regularly; I had to crack my hands several times while typing up this article so I could finish it.
But in the days immediately after getting the vaccine, I couldn’t crack anything. It’s hard to explain to people who are not joint crackers. Basically, my joint gets into a position where it causes pain and has a limited range of motion. I have to intentionally crack whatever joint it is (ankle, knee, finger) back into place. If my ankle gets stuck and loses half its range of motion, and I can’t crack it back, well, I can’t really walk. On top of feeling generally sick from the vaccine, I had to account for the fact that my joints had temporarily reduced ranges of motion.
Now, the veins: on an average day, you could trace the arteries in my arms from my thumb to my shoulder and down to my heart. My skin kind of looks like someone drew on me with highlighter. In the days after the vaccine, I could see the arteries all the way to my fingertips as well as a tiny network of capillaries across my forearms. This symptom didn’t cause any pain or functional issues for me. It was just another weird thing on top of weird things. I’m including it because if you are someone who has issues involving veins, you want to be aware of this one.
Monday — Side Effects Day 2
By day 2, there was no change in my lymph node and I still felt awful. I was still having intermittent cold sweats, but the fever largely disappeared. I spent the whole day resting, either in bed listening to music or watching TV propped up in my grandmother’s old recliner. Poor sleep and the inability to nap meant that I had vaccine fatigue coupled with regular exhaustion.
After lying around during the day, I started to feel a little better during the evening. I still felt sick, but thought I push through it to clean up the tissues and takeout trash that had piled up around me for two days.
But this was a terrible idea. Simply walking around my house and picking up tissues jolted my lymph node back into emergency mode. I ended up leaning heavily on the bathroom sink, trying not to scream as the pain sent little black spikes across my vision. Attempting to use my arm normally sent my left side into acute pain, from the collarbone to the ribs and down to my fingers. I decided the best course of action was to take it easy and not punish myself when I was already feeling awful. So I went to lie down again.
Tuesday— Side Effects Day 3
By this point, there was no change in my swollen lymph node. I adjusted by keeping my arm close to my side and laying my forearm across my abdomen. As long as I took it slow and held my arm immobile, I could walk around the house without aggravating the pain too much.
This wasn’t just a minor discomfort. This was pain so bad, I was brushing my teeth with the other hand and opening water bottles one-handed.
Thankfully, I had a previously scheduled video appointment with my rheumatologist that day. I told him about my lymph node and he said I should seek help if it didn’t go down at all 7 days after the shot. He also advised me that it was okay to use ibuprofen at this point, a few days after the shot.
Taking the ibuprofen helped a lot of the pain. I started to feel that I was coming out of the flu-like symptoms. My only remaining concern was the swollen lymph node.
The Next 10 Days
The swollen lymph node finally started to go down on Wednesday, four days after the shot. By Saturday, a full week after the shot, it was still in pain and preventing me from doing certain things (like typing for an extended period of time), but I was almost back to my typical functioning. Now, Tuesday, a week and three days after the shot, I still feel a bit of localized weirdness both at the injection site and the left armpit lymph node. But it doesn’t feel any worse than my typical aches and pains, so I consider myself back to normal now.
What I Did Right
1. I got the vaccine
No matter the severity of the side effects, nothing will change my mind. I know that getting the vaccine was the right move.
2. I warned my friends and colleagues
I tend to have severe reactions to any kind of medication, so I was expecting some side effects. I let my friends know in advance so they could check on me (and they helped me research the existing data about swollen lymph nodes). I called my parents to check in on their side effects and let my dad know I might need some help if my left side didn’t improve.
3. I got my shot in the left arm, even though I’m left-handed
I reasoned that I use my right hand to click a mouse more than I use my left hand to write. This turned out to be a great idea. I was able to send out a few emails and messages on Tuesday since my left side was only responsible for the keyboard, not the keyboard and mouse.
4. I took it seriously
I have bad reactions to lots of things that other people would consider no big deal. I’m that medical 1%, I know that. I didn’t expect myself to be back to normal the next day, even if that’s how it worked for other people. My body doesn’t work that way, and that’s okay.
What I Would Have Changed
Of course, I would still get the vaccine. But in terms of preparing for the side effects, I wish I had…
1. Better water supplies.
I didn’t realize how exhausting the side effects would be. I had cold sweats for two days. If I could go back, I would have left more water bottles in my bedroom and next to the couch to easily rehydrate without dragging myself around the house.
2. Clean sheets.
Sweating in my sleep made me feel gross and stressed. If I could do it over, I would have had clean pillowcases ready to swap out. And if I lived with someone, I would have asked for help changing the sheets after the worst night.
3. Ready-to-eat meals.
It took all of my energy to sit upright for an hour after eating. I couldn’t have gotten up and made myself a home-cooked meal, too. I ended up ordering contactless delivery but I could have saved money and stress by having 2–3 days of meals in the fridge ready to go.
4. OTC drugs
Ibuprofen and acetaminophen (paracetamol to some of you) were great at reducing my symptoms once it was okay to take OTC drugs (well after your shot). I wish that I had put the bottle next to my bed the night before the vaccine instead of scouring my house for that one bottle of ibuprofen I knew must be somewhere.
All in all, getting the vaccine wasn’t fun. But it was necessary, and I got through it. I’m ready for the next challenges in this pandemic-affected world. And for the first time in a long time, I have hope that I’m going to be okay.
Thanks for checking out my story. I hope it helps you navigate your own vaccine process more smoothly. Want to see more from me? Read my article about the importance of hiring disabled people or check out this cute story about Japanese crane games you can play from your phone.