The past year has been a difficult and anxiety-provoking time for most of us. In my case, with both Hashimoto’s disease and Type 1 diabetes, I decided in early February of 2020 to isolate myself as much as possible to avoid getting COVID-19. I was very fortunate that I already worked from home and started ordering my groceries, avoiding unnecessary trips.
Right away, I launched myself into publishing a series of COVID-related articles and in-depth video interviews with epidemiologists, physicians, and other experts around the nation. I quickly became steeped in a 24-7 diet of COVID information overload.
I was also interested in finding out whatever I could about whether having an autoimmune disease made us more susceptible to contracting COVID or having a more severe case. I spent countless hours researching and talking to experts. What I learned was that there weren’t many clear answers. There was no evidence so far that well-treated autoimmune disease or hypothyroidism made you more susceptible to COVID. There was also no evidence that autoimmune disease in COVID patients led to worse outcomes. There was, however, evidence that people with diabetes were at much a higher risk of hospitalization and death.
While my thyroid antibodies were within the reference range and my hypothyroidism and diabetes well-treated, I did not want to take any chances and get COVID!
The CDC and the World Health Organization told us to wear masks, wash our hands, and socially distance to prevent the spread of COVID. Beyond that, we had little else we could do. But early on, integrative, holistic, and alternative medicine doctors, researchers, and naturopaths suggested that we support overall immune health by getting enough sleep and physical activity, managing stress, eating a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet, and consider adding vitamins, herbs, and minerals that could help immunity. I upped my intake of vitamin D and vitamin C, added in some zinc, and started taking some herbal formulations in the hopes that they would confer some extra immunity.
At the same time, I was hearing from friends around the United States— and the world—who had friends and family hospitalized with COVID and even tragically lost to COVID. Several friends also contracted COVID. While they narrowly avoided hospitalization, many of them are still recovering months later—significantly suffering from chronically low oxygen levels, non-stop coughing, extreme exhaustion, rashes, dizziness, brain fog, aches and pains, muscle weakness, loss of their sense of taste and smell, heart and lung problems, shortness of breath, and a long list of other strange symptoms. They were getting no relief and no answers from their doctors.
Meanwhile, who could miss the news reports from across the globe, and then, increasingly, across our nation, showing rising infection rates, death counts, hospital ships, COVID pop-up hospitals, and nationwide shutdowns? It was—and is—hard and stressful. For me, month after month of essentially being in quarantine, with bad news about COVID coming out 24-7, was exhausting and depressing!
After months of this, I grew certain that I wanted to get vaccinated as soon as a vaccine was available. To me, it seemed—and still seems—like the only way back to some semblance of “normal.”
Still, many thyroid patients—readers, friends, and family—reached out and said, “Is a vaccine safe for hypothyroid patients?” And, “If I have hypothyroidism or Hashimoto's, will the vaccine cause additional side effects?” “Will it work as well for us?” These were valid and cautious questions that I had as well.
Again, I talked with many physicians, researchers, and experts. And again, there were no clear answers. The vaccine trials had included people with autoimmune diseases and hypothyroidism. But their specific vaccine side effects had not—at least as of late April 2021—been tracked or analyzed separately.
So, currently, we don’t yet know:
- Do the COVID vaccines work as well in autoimmune or hypothyroid patients as the general population?
- Do any of the COVID vaccines currently available—Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), or Astra Zeneca—work better than others in autoimmune or hypothyroid patients?
- Are there more or different side effects—or potential longer-term or more significant side effects—from COVID vaccines for autoimmune or hypothyroid patients?
Given that we’re just a few months out from the initial introduction of these vaccines, it will likely be months—or even years—before we have definitive answers to these questions.
Making the decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine
As my eligibility for the vaccine came closer, I had a decision to make—one that millions of Americans are also facing this year: should I get vaccinated?
The FDA had authorized the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and later the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, based on short clinical trials, declaring them generally safe and effective. But they were still new vaccines, created in some cases with new technologies, and, as with any vaccine, came with some risks.
For me, the question became: do the risks of the vaccine outweigh the benefits? Or vice versa?
I read everything I could get my hand on from reputable sources across the spectrum—from conventional medical journals and late-breaking research abstracts to opinions from well-respected integrative and holistic experts. I also personally spoke with many physicians, including holistic and integrative physicians, who have been treating a rapidly increasing number of COVID patients with post-viral syndromes. They said that “long-haulers,” as these patients are known, had in many cases gone from good health to severe chronic illness. It was a long a difficult road back to any semblance of health for many of their patients.
What was illuminating to me was that when I asked the “should we get vaccinated” question, I got the same response from almost every expert I spoke with: “The proven risk of COVID is far greater than the theoretical and known risks of the vaccines.”
Even the physicians who traditionally were not vocal supporters of vaccines—they even avoid annual flu shots and shingles vaccines, for example—told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was almost always the right choice to get a COVID vaccine. However, they did recommend that I go into the vaccine well-rested and well-hydrated and continue with my other efforts to support my immune system.
I decided that as soon as I was eligible—and could obtain an appointment—I would get whichever COVID vaccine was offered.
I will spare you the long story of trying to get a vaccine here in Maryland. We had minimal supplies. In the first months, even healthcare providers and first responders had difficulty securing a vaccination slot. But perseverance paid off. I received an offer from the state’s health department to get my first vaccine at one of our mass vaccination sites for March 28.
My COVID-19 vaccine experience
Vaccination #1: Sunday, March 28
I had my first Pfizer shot around 5 p.m. that Sunday. (For those of you who hate injections, it was very fast, and I barely felt it!) It was a drive-through clinic, so after my vaccine, I sat in the parking lot in the car for the required 15 minutes. I had no unusual reactions and left after 15 minutes.
I had no side effects that evening. I did, however, turn in a bit early for me, at 11 p.m., and slept heavily and deeply until I woke up briefly around 8 a.m. I was so sleepy that I went back to sleep for three more hours. I had a slightly sore arm and shoulder that day. (It felt like I had carried something too heavy for too long. Note: moving my arm around and gently massaging it seemed to help quite a bit!) I worked the rest of the day. Then, around 4 p.m., I felt so sleepy that I sat down on my bed and closed my eyes “for a minute” to rest before a scheduled Paloma Health Speaker Series event later that day. The next thing I knew, I awoke, and it was close to midnight! I had slept for almost eight hours and slept right through the virtual webinar I was supposed to moderate! After sending a few embarrassed apology emails, I went back to sleep and slept another eight hours!
I awoke on Tuesday morning, feeling rested, refreshed, and otherwise normal, except for slight tenderness and a bit of swelling at the injection site.
Vaccination #2: Sunday, April 18
My second vaccination was again at 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 18, at the same drive-through site. Again, a fast and painless injection, followed by a 15-minute wait with no reaction. Later, I had dinner, relaxed, kept drinking a lot of water, and went to bed at around midnight, feeling fine, with no side effects. I knew that the second shot typically had more side effects for some people, so I had cleared my schedule for the next day. I woke Monday around 5 a.m. with chills and body aches. I added an extra blanket and rolled over to catch a few more hours of sleep, waking up around noon. At that point, I noticed that I also had slightly swollen glands. The body aches had intensified a bit, and I took my temperature. It was 101 degrees. I’ve had the flu, and these felt like mild-to-moderate flu-like symptoms.
I stayed in bed, watched some tv, and rested, and took another two-hour nap in the afternoon. Into the evening, I continued to have chills, a 100-degree fever, body aches, swollen glands, and some soreness at the injection site. My physician said that I could take a pain reliever. So, at bedtime, I took some ibuprofen and some magnesium to help the muscle and body aches. I felt a difference within minutes! I went to sleep almost pain-free around 11 p.m. and slept through the night.
When I woke around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, I noticed that the chills were gone, and the achiness was almost gone. My glands felt virtually normal again. I checked my temperature, and it was normal. I felt about 95% back to normal, hopped out of bed, and worked a full day.
I’ve had no other side effects and am back to feeling entirely normal at this point, four days post-vaccine.
Vaccination Booster: Thursday, November 18
Seven months to the day after my second COVID vaccination, I got a booster. Since the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines appears to reduce over time, many experts have been recommending boosters for those who want to increase their protection. With an increase of transmission of the Delta variant expected during the winter months and the likely spread of the Omicron variant, boosters could be even more important.
A COVID booster has a clear benefit. One small study that evaluated COVID antibodies recently reported that people who had two doses of an mRNA vaccine (Moderna or Pfizer) plus a booster have a dramatic increase in antibodies. The study found that the median level of antibodies was 23 times higher just one week after the booster, compared to levels measured just before the jab.
Luckily, here in Maryland, the vaccines and boosters are now easily available at pharmacies and state and county clinics. I was able to quickly schedule mine in a nearby mall parking lot just minutes from my house. After a short wait, I presented my vaccination card, and within a few minutes, I had my booster and an updated vaccine card.
Having been through the first two vaccines, I was prepared for pretty much anything in terms of side effects. The good news: I had a much easier time with the booster. The day after, I felt a bit tired and my muscles ached, and I ran a low-grade fever of around 100 degrees. But happily, these milder side effects were gone in less than a day. I did develop one side effect I didn’t have with the first two shots: a sore and slightly inflamed area around the injection site. The arm tenderness subsided in about a week.
I felt so much more confident and free after the first two vaccines. I was able to travel out of state to my daughter’s graduate school commencement and make other long-overdue trips to visit friends and family. With my booster, I’m still being careful and wearing my mask when I’m indoors in public places. But I feel ready to take on the holidays and new year without fear!
Vaccination Booster #2: Friday, October 14, 2022
Almost five months after my first booster, I got my second COVID-19 booster dose because I am over the age of 50. With multiple Omicron variants still out there, and the potential of waning immunity, it seemed like a good idea. My two initial COVID vaccinations and booster were the Pfizer vaccine, so I decided to mix vaccines and get a Moderna booster this time.
I wasn't sure what to expect with Moderna, especially as the booster is a half-sized dose. But as with the Pfizer booster, right on schedule, 12 hours after my vaccine, I had mild chills, body aches, and a slight fever of around 100.5. That continued for about 24 hours, and eventually disappeared. I did have some swelling and tenderness at the injection site, but that was not as noticeable as with my first booster.
At this point, barring any unusual new COVID variants or developments, I should be fairly well-protected into the fall and winter of 2022. I'm still wearing a mask when traveling and in crowded indoor places, and I'm making sure to support my immune system with sufficient vitamin D, zinc, and vitamin C—as well as ensuring I have good nutrition and sufficient sleep. But with multiple autoimmune diseases—and a propensity to get laid low by viruses in the past—I'm being as careful as possible to avoid getting a breakthrough COVID infection, while doing my best to live a normal life!
So far, we're two years into the pandemic, and I've managed to avoid getting COVID (and long-COVID). My goal: to keep it that way!
Advice for thyroid patients considering the COVID-19 vaccine
I feel strongly that the decision to get a vaccine is yours and only yours to make. But if you are choosing to get a COVID vaccine, here are a few tips:
1. It may seem obvious, but get your vaccine in your non-dominant arm. That way, you’re less likely to need to be using it frequently after the vaccinations when the vaccinated arm may feel somewhat achy.
2. Discuss with your doctor what sort of medications he or she recommends you use to treat any vaccine side effects.
3. Move your arm around after your vaccinations, and massage lightly and gently to help relieve inflammation and soreness at the injection site.
4. Plan a light schedule for at least the day after your first vaccine, if possible. (You don’t want to end up sleeping through a meeting, as I did if you get extra tired!)
5. Stay well-hydrated before and after your vaccinations. It can help with the soreness.
6. Sleep as much as you can after your vaccinations – and most of all, don’t skimp on sleep! Research clearly shows that getting sufficient sleep can help enhance your immunological response to vaccines.
7. You may be one of the lucky folks who have minimal side effects. But you can’t predict, even based on past response to other vaccinations. The noticeable side effects from COVID vaccines are more likely after the second shot of the two-shot vaccines or after the one-shot J&J vaccine. So, if it’s possible, I recommend you clear your schedule as much as you can for the day or two after your second vaccination or J&J shot. That way, if you do have any side effects, you’ll be able to rest up more comfortably.
Some readers have asked that I report down the road on any potential longer-term or autoimmune-related effects of getting the COVID vaccine. So, stay tuned for periodic updates.
I can tell you now that the most noticeable side effect of all, for me, is the immense sense of relief I feel knowing that I have a greater degree of protection against contracting COVID or infecting others. Even if I am infected, I am far less likely to become seriously ill with COVID. That is one side effect I am 100% thrilled to experience!