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COVID-19 vaccine side effects: What to expect and when to see a doctor

An elderly woman goes through a preliminary medical examination with a doctor ahead of her COVID-19 vaccination at a vaccination center in Busan, April 1. Yonhap
An elderly woman goes through a preliminary medical examination with a doctor ahead of her COVID-19 vaccination at a vaccination center in Busan, April 1. Yonhap

By Lee Hyo-jin

Nearly one million people in Korea have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of April 5, and the government is preparing to largely expand inoculations to the general public in the second quarter.

As wider vaccinations are expected to prompt more questions on side effects, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) recently announced a set of guidelines on what symptoms to expect after the injection, how to reduce potential side effects, and in which specific situations people should seek further medical attention.

The latest guidelines are aimed at helping people receive appropriate medical treatment in cases of severe reactions to vaccination, while unnecessary visits to emergency rooms.

According to the KDCA, it is normal to experience swelling and pain in the injection site after inoculation. People are advised to apply a clean cloth on the area and ice if experiencing heat-like discomfort. Another common short-term side effect is a light fever not exceeding 37.5 degrees Celsius, and in such cases, doctors advise people to stay hydrated by drinking enough water and resting at home.

As flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, and muscle aches are common side effects, it is a good idea to prepare pain killers and fever reducers prior to being inoculated and to take the pills if symptoms appear. An over-the-counter fever reducer recommended by the health authorities is acetaminophen, which includes Tylenol.

It is recommended to see a doctor if any symptoms do not disappear within two days after inoculation. Also, do not hesitate to visit the hospital if bruising or bleeding is observed in areas other than the injection site.

Regarding concerns over cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), a rare type of blood clot in the brain, since cases have been reported here and abroad the KDCA advised people to keep an eye on any serious headaches after being vaccinated.

"CVST comes with a severe headache that many people probably haven't experienced before, and therefore people should watch out for headaches that are not relieved by painkillers," said Seo Eun-sook, a professor at Soonchunhyang University Medical School, and a member of the side effect investigation team at the KDCA.

People aged over 75 wait to receive their first shots of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Dongjak District, Seoul, April 5. Yonhap
People aged over 75 wait to receive their first shots of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Dongjak District, Seoul, April 5. Yonhap

The KDCA warned that some side effects require urgent medical attention. People suffering from severe dizziness, breathing difficulties, swollen lips and face, skin rash, or unconsciousness should immediately visit the hospital.

Health authorities said they will continue to closely monitor side effects of the vaccine, while encouraging the public to actively participate in the vaccination program when their turn is up.

According the KDCA, as of April 5, a total of 11,141 people, or 1 percent of people who have been inoculated, reported at least one side effect.

Among them, 98 percent, or 10,976 people, experienced minor symptoms such as muscle pain, headache, fever, chills and nausea. Another 101 people showed anaphylactic reactions, along with eight suspected cases of anaphylactic shock, and 20 cases of seizures.

The country has reported 36 deaths after vaccination, while health authorities have investigated 19 of them and found no causal links between the vaccine and deaths. Other cases are currently under review.

Despite an unstable supply of vaccines worldwide, the KDCA confirmed that its plan to inoculate around 11.5 million people within the second quarter is still on track, with an aim to reach herd immunity by November.

From April 8, teachers at special schools and school nurses will receive the vaccine. In the same month, inoculation will begin on medical personnel at local hospitals, including dental clinics, oriental medicine clinics and pharmacies.

Starting from May, teachers and caregivers at kindergartens, homeroom teachers of first and second grades at elementary schools will be vaccinated. The government plans to carefully roll out vaccines to patients with chronic illnesses within that month.

In June, social service workers such as police officers, firefighters and military will be inoculated.


이효진 lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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