As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, recipients have reported side effects like soreness, swelling, and fatigue, causing many to take medication to relieve some of the pain. However, a study at Duke University revealed that patients who took painkillers before their vaccine ended up with fewer antibodies in comparison to those who had not taken them.
Why is this the case? Is the data just skewed by chance? Why do these side effects occur in the first place? Does this mean the vaccine isn’t effective?
Let’s first take a look at how and why the vaccine works.
Here’s a simplified way to approach this. Think of a typical COVID-19 infection as a tiny war in which the virus is trying to invade your body, and your white blood cells are your soldiers fighting back.
COVID-19’s army is incredibly strong, and their fighting tactics are unlike any that your cells have seen before. Unlike how fevers or colds might launch frontal attacks and invade by targeting weak links in your defense line, the virus attacks by latching onto your healthy “soldiers,” hijacking them.
Your soldiers have been trained over the years to form a strong line of defense like needed to fight a common cold. But with the coronavirus’ attacks being far different from a cold, that defense line becomes ineffective. Your soldiers have no idea how to respond to this invasion, and they don’t know how to stop it.
It may take days or weeks for your soldiers to figure out patterns in the virus’ attacks and identify tactics to defend your body. During that time, the invaders’ numbers are growing, and each day, they further infiltrate your body.
By the time your soldiers devise a plan to stop the attacks, it may be too late to execute it. The virus may have already overtaken your body. The coronavirus can easily be deadly.
How can you prevent this?
The problem with the current setup is the element of surprise. Your army is thrown into the war entirely unprepared, and as a result, it takes much too long for your soldiers to find ways to defend their territory.
The solution, then, must be to take that element of surprise away. You can tell your soldiers that a foreign attack is coming all you want, but that isn’t enough to prepare them. They’d have no idea what you’re talking about.
A more effective method would be to physically train them in preparation for the foreign attack, so that they no longer need to waste precious time on the battlefield figuring out what to do. You need to give them exposure to the enemy’s tactics for them to know how to fight it off. But, you can’t send in actual enemy ranks to train them, or the enemy might overtake your soldiers right then.
Instead, you set up a facade. You put something on the battlefield that looks just like the enemy, maybe a replica of their army, but the truth is that there are no real enemy soldiers behind the weapons, so there is no way for the training to cause a real infiltration. It’s only an illusion.
Recall that your white blood cells are represented by your “soldiers,” and that COVID-19 acts as the “enemy.” The facade that you set up to train your white blood cells is the vaccine.
Once your white blood cells learn how to fight the fake virus, they’ll be prepared and ready to fight the real one as soon as it enters your system. Though you may still contract the coronavirus at some point and feel sick for a day or two, your cells will remember how to fight it, and the severity of the virus will be far less impactful.
But what is that facade? How does it trick your white blood cells into thinking it’s the virus?
COVID-19 has a specific protein surrounding it like a shield or a shell. The protein alone will not infect you, but it acts like a battering ram into your cells. If your white blood cells learn to fight off the protein, they’ll be able to fight off the virus-carrying ones as well.
Just like the illusion you set up to train your soldiers, scientists have made it possible to insert the protein shell into your body so that your white blood cells can get a head start on learning how to fight it.
Once this protein enters your body, your white blood cells try to figure out what to do with it. They start to produce a group of chemicals called prostaglandins, which are much like military artillery. The weapons take energy and resources to operate, much like your prostaglandins do, and this may cause light inflammation even though you aren’t infected.
That’s why the side effects of the vaccine include swelling and pain, and this is where ibuprofen comes in.
Ibuprofen works by halting the production of prostaglandins. It’s an anti-inflammatory medication, and its intention is to minimize pain. It’s not trained to fight wars, it’s only there to heal.
While it’ll certainly make you feel better after taking the vaccine, what it’s really doing is halting the entire training process. It’s telling your white blood cells, “Hey, stop fighting, you’re making me uncomfortable. We want world peace!” and your white blood cells will comply.
If the real virus were to enter your system afterward, your white blood cells would still have some figuring out to do in terms of fighting the virus off. In a bad case, the extra time may become a life-or-death factor.
Although taking the vaccine with ibuprofen is more effective than not taking the vaccine at all, it’s better not to waste all of the efforts you’ve gone through to get the vaccine in the first place. Try to avoid medication containing ibuprofen for a while; for example, Advil, Motrin, and Aspirin.
A common replacement for ibuprofen is acetaminophen, the pain-relieving drug present in Tylenol. Although less is known about acetaminophen than ibuprofen, it is thought to have less of an impact on inflammation, making it a better choice of pain-reducers as opposed to ibuprofen.
In either case, taking a pain reliever before the vaccination will interfere with the antibody-building process. Your best bet would be to avoid pain medication entirely, but if side effects become too severe, Tylenol is suggested over other medications.
Remember to continue to take precautions for several weeks after receiving your vaccine. It will take time to fully build up defenses, and if the virus were to enter your system before you’re ready, it could still be dangerous.
Get your vaccine as soon as possible to give your white blood cells time to start preparing!