Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is especially important for heart and stroke patients because people with such underlying conditions are more likely to develop complications from the disease.
About half of the adult population of the U.S. has received at least one shot, with very few reports of serious side effects.
"People with all kinds of cardiovascular risk factors and disease should definitely get vaccinated to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19," said Dr. Mitchell Elkind, a professor of neurology and epidemiology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.
"People with heart disease or stroke – or for that matter, risk factors for heart disease and stroke – are at much greater risk from the virus than they are from the vaccine," he said. That's why the AHA encourages people with cardiovascular risk factors, heart disease or a history of heart attack or stroke to get vaccinated "as soon as possible."
A sore arm has been the most common side effect. Others include fatigue, headache, chills, muscle and join pain and fever.
Such reactions are a sign the body is mounting an immune response, "and that's a good thing," said Orly Vardeny, associate professor of medicine at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System and University of Minnesota. "That's what we want to happen in order for our bodies to make antibodies that will prevent us from getting sick if we encounter the virus again."
The vaccines currently approved for use in the U.S. don’t have a live virus, so that reduces concerns for heart disease patients or others with weakened immune systems, Vardeny said.
The vaccines also can be safely administered to people on blood-thinning medications, Elkind said. "The needle is small. To avoid bruising, people on blood thinners should press firmly for a minute or so, just like after getting blood drawn."
In rare cases, the COVID-19 vaccine can cause a severe allergic reaction, which is why people should be monitored after the injection. And as the vaccine is administered to millions of people, other rare issues might be reported, Vardeny said. "I think we'll learn a lot more about the tolerability and potential reactions as the vaccine gets rolled out."
Some questions can't be answered yet.
Trials in children, for example, are ongoing, which is why the vaccines have not been approved for them. And data is limited on adults who have congenital heart conditions.
Misinformation abounds about vaccines, which makes it essential for people to seek trustworthy sources for facts. The best authority will be a primary care provider, cardiologist, pharmacist or other medical professional, Vardeny said. "They're going to have accurate and up-to-date information, and they're going to be able to steer you in the direction of information that's truthful."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also regularly updates its information on vaccines.
Elkind said he's often asked whether the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, given how quickly they were developed. It's a particular concern in the Black community, he said, where there's a "tragic and inappropriate" history with medical experiments.
The COVID-19 vaccines might have arrived within a year of the pandemic's start, he said, but research into the underlying technology had been going on for more than a decade. So people should see it as a positive that a vaccine arrived with such speed.
"And again, (many) people have been vaccinated already, with no evidence of any significant unexpected side effects so far," Elkind said. "I think that's good news for all of us."