FAQ: COVID-19 Vaccine and Adolescents

Children ages 12 to 15 can now get a COVID-19 vaccine. The United States administered COVID-19 vaccinations to around 600,000 children ages 12 to 15 the week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents under an emergency use authorization (EUA).

Families all over country are signing their adolescents up for the vaccine ahead of the summer break so they can enjoy the benefits of being fully vaccinated such as travel to visit family, attending summer camps and enjoying time with friends and loved ones.

Still, not everyone is convinced their adolescents should get the vaccine, and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines continues to make waves on social media.

When deciding whether to get vaccinated, it’s important to know the facts. We asked UNC Health pediatrician Edward M. Pickens, MD, to answer some common questions parents may have about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Is the vaccine safe for this age group?

Yes. The vaccine is safe and effective for this age group. In clinical trial studies involving 2,260 people ages 12 to 15, the Pfizer vaccine was found to be as – or more – effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 when compared to the studies with adults. None of the adolescents in the clinical trial who received the vaccine developed symptoms of a COVID-19 infection.

Plus, the adolescents who got the vaccine produced much higher levels of antibodies on average, compared with participants 16 to 25 years of age in an earlier trial. Importantly, there were no serious side effects for any of the clinical trial participants.

The FDA continues to monitor the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. Over 157 million people in the U.S. have now received a vaccine. There are no current safety concerns for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. A small number of women out of over a million who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine developed a rare type of stroke, but the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not the vaccine that has been approved for adolescents age 12 to 15.

Did those who made or approved the vaccines cut any corners to make them available faster?

The development of the COVID-19 vaccines – and the clinical trials testing their safety and effectiveness – were accomplished in record time. This was to respond to the emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Scientists from across the world worked hard to conduct large and rigorous studies to ensure the safety of the vaccines before they became available. These clinical trials did not cut any corners. Also, two groups of non-government scientists – along with the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – independently reviewed the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines before they became available in the United States.

Do the vaccines cause infertility?

The vaccines do not cause male or female infertility. With regard to female infertility, there have been rumors that the vaccines affect the placenta. This is false.

This is how that myth originated: The vaccines encourage the body to make copies of the spike protein found on the surface of COVID-19, which then causes the body’s immune system to fight the virus. Some worried that this spike protein also targets a protein in the placenta of pregnant women called syncytin-1. This is not true. They are different proteins, and there is no data suggesting that the antibodies from the COVID-19 vaccines affect syncytin-1.

Fertility experts at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine recommend COVID-19 vaccination “for women who are contemplating pregnancy or who are pregnant to minimize risks to themselves and their pregnancy.”

With regard to male infertility, the vaccine does not affect sperm quality or cause male infertility.

Do the vaccines affect DNA?

Another myth circulating on the internet is that vaccines change your DNA and therefore could cause cancer. This is false. In fact, the mRNA in the Pfizer vaccine does not interact with human DNA; it simply teaches the immune system how to recognize the virus. mRNA does not enter the nucleus of your cells, where DNA is located, so it physically can’t interact with or affect your DNA. In addition, mRNA from the vaccine is temporary. Once the mRNA has done its job, your cells break it down and clear it from your body.

Why do children even need a COVID-19 vaccine since they are not high-risk for complications?

Although most children and teens typically don’t get as sick with COVID-19 as adults, that’s not the case for everyone. There certainly are some children and teenagers who get extremely sick.  And for children who do experience symptomatic infections, whether there are long-term effects is still unknown.

In addition, the goal of immunization is not only to prevent an infection for the individual, but to prevent further spread. We have to remember that every time you have a virus spread from one person to another, that raises the likelihood of having a mutation (or variant). In hot spots across the country experiencing a lot of infections, somebody was the first person to have a new variant and that happened because it spread from one person to another. We need to do all we can do to keep that from happening again, and the only way to do that is through vaccination. Clinical study and laboratory data indicate that the Pfizer vaccine is protective against the new variants that are now circulating.

Can children get a vaccine without parental consent?

Parents and guardians are encouraged to attend COVID-19 vaccine appointments with adolescent patients. If you cannot attend an appointment with your child, you can provide consent over the phone. However, North Carolina law permits minors to self-consent for medical health services for the prevention of COVID-19.

What side effects did this age group experience from the Pfizer vaccine?

Almost all of the side effects experienced by the adolescents who received the vaccine in the clinical trial were expected, including a sore arm, headache, feeling tired, muscle aches and chills. These side effects were very similar to what researchers have seen in studies of adults who get the Pfizer vaccine. Avoid scheduling a vaccine appointment the day before a final exam, dance recital, camp, travel or an important sporting event, just in case.

Can children get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine with other planned vaccines?

Like adults, adolescents will receive two doses of the Pfizer vaccine about 21 days apart. They will be considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose. Initially, the CDC recommended a two-week spacing between the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines, but after further investigation, they released a statement saying that this is not necessary. Talk with your provider if you have specific questions about receiving other vaccines at or around the same time as the COVID-19 vaccine.

My child is scared of needles. What should I do?

If your child has a fear of shots and/or needles, we suggest you do not tell them about the appointment too far in advance. It may be worse for them if they have too much time to think about it. Instead, wait for the day of the appointment to explain why they need the shot. You can tell them that it will keep them, their friends and loved ones safe, and help us return to a more normal life.  Make sure you tell the person who is administering your child’s shot if they have a history of fainting with needles. If your child has fainted while getting a shot before, the CDC recommends they do the following:

  • Have a beverage or snack before getting your vaccine.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply before getting the vaccine and think of something relaxing.
  • Sit or lie down after you receive your vaccine.

Can children get the Pfizer vaccine if they have allergies?

Yes. While there have been a few reports of severe reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines, most people can still get the vaccine. This includes those who have had severe allergic reactions in the past. If your child has had a serious allergic reaction to a previous vaccine, or is allergic to any of the ingredients in the Pfizer vaccine, we recommend you talk to your child’s doctor before scheduling an appointment. For all other types of allergies, including food, pollens, pets, insect stings, latex and/or oral medications, the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and highly recommended.

Should children get the Pfizer vaccine if they have an underlying health condition?

If your child is on an immunosuppressive therapy (drugs that suppress the immune system) or has an immunocompromising medical condition, such as cancer, we recommend you talk to their doctor before scheduling an appointment. There may be certain situations where a child’s medications or condition could mean they will not respond to the vaccine. It is important to have those discussions with your child’s physician. That does not mean they cannot get the vaccine, but that your child may have a reduced response to the vaccine.

If you have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine for your child, talk to your child’s doctor. Need a doctor? Find one here. For more facts about the COVID-19 vaccines, visit yourshot.org.