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Are COVID-19 Vaccines Safe For Kids? Here's What You Need To Know

COVID-19 vaccines for kids 12 and older were approved in May, but Pfizer's CEO expects to submit emergency use authorization applications for 2- to 11-years-olds in September.
Claire Zhu
COVID-19 vaccines for kids 12 and older were approved in May, but Pfizer's CEO expects to submit emergency use authorization applications for 2- to 11-years-olds in September.

​The Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use in kids ages 12 and older in mid-May.

We asked members of the Indiana Two-Way and the Midwest Checkup for their questions and concerns about kids receiving the vaccine. To join the Indiana Two-Way text “Indiana” to 73224, and to join the Midwest Checkup, text “health” to 73224.

What’s the age limit for COVID-19 vaccines?
Right now, no COVID-19 vaccine is available for kids younger than 12.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by the FDA for emergency use May 10, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s independent vaccine committee gave its approval the same week.

But Pfizer is currently the only COVID-19 vaccine available in the U.S. with that approval. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are still conducting trials and the FDA is reviewing their data. Moderna is currently conducting clinical trials for kids as young as 6 months old.

According to NPR’s Shots, on a May 4 call with investors, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said his company plans to submit the applications for emergency use authorization in children ages 2-5 and 5-11 to the FDA in September.

What’s in the vaccines?
The FDA lists 10 ingredients in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine:

  • mRNA
  • lipids ((4-hydroxybutyl)azanediyl)bis(hexane-6,1-diyl)bis(2-hexyldecanoate)
  • 2[(polyethylene glycol)-2000]-N
  • N-ditetradecylacetamide
  • 1,2-Distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine, and cholesterol)
  • potassium chloride
  • monobasic potassium phosphate
  • sodium chloride
  • dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate
  • sucrose

Basically, that’s three types of fats, cholesterol, sugar, and four types of salt (including sodium chloride, which is table salt).

The Moderna vaccine’s ingredients are:

  • lipids (SM-102, polyethylene glycol [PEG] 2000 dimyristoyl glycerol [DMG], cholesterol, and 1,2-distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine [DSPC])
  • tromethamine
  • tromethamine hydrochloride
  • acetic acid
  • sodium acetate
  • sucrose

That’s four different fats, salt, sugar, tromethamine, tromethamine hydrochloride, and acetic acid.

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use mRNA to deliver a cheat code to your body’s immune system, without giving an inactive version or a live but weakened version of the virus.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a vector-based vaccine: it contains a totally different virus than COVID-19, but it has parts of COVID-19 inserted into it, so your body can learn to respond to it. This vaccine uses adenovirus type 26, which can cause cold symptoms and pink eye. The strain in the virus is manipulated so it cannot replicate in your body to cause illness.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s ingredients are:

  • recombinant
  • replication-incompetent adenovirus type 26 expressing the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein
  • citric acid monohydrate
  • trisodium citrate dihydrate
  • ethanol
  • 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HBCD)
  • polysorbate-80
  • sodium chloride

That’s the disarmed virus, acid, two types of salt, ethanol, sugar, and polysorbate-80 – which is a pretty common emulsifier in foods to hold ingredients together.

What side effects do children have with the vaccine?
The side effects in children are pretty similar to what young adults experienced: the second dose has more noticeable side effects than the first. But those side effects are regulated to temporary pain at the injection site, fatigue and headache. It is also common to experience chills or muscle pain. Other, less frequent side effects reported during clinical trials include fever, joint pain and nausea.

The CDC has some helpful guidance (and digital producer tested, the washcloth actually works) on how to help mitigate vaccine symptoms.

Important to note: fainting is also more likely with kids. But this phenomenon isn't restricted to the COVID-19 shots. It has also been observed after flu shots and the HPV and T-dap vaccines. Usually, fainting is triggered by anxiety or pain. To prepare kids for the shot and reduce some anxiety, health experts recommend making sure they are well hydrated, have eaten recently and reassured that the vaccine is safe.

Let vaccine administrators know if your child has a history of fainting or if they’re concerned about it. Some clinics have set up areas specifically for people who are more prone to fainting.

My child has had allergic reactions in the past to vaccinations – can they still get the COVID-19 vaccine?
If you’ve had allergic reactions to vaccines in the past, you should talk to your primary care provider about the vaccine. People who have had severe allergic reactions may need to be monitored after receiving the vaccine. Polyethylene glycol – which is in both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines – has been pointed to as what has triggered some anaphylaxis.

The most common allergic reaction, especially in flu shots, are in people with egg allergies. The most common flu vaccines are developed with egg-based technology, but the FDA and CDC said common food allergies and medicines shouldn’t prevent most people from receiving the vaccine.

What is “emergency” approval for vaccines?
The Emergency Use Authorization process essentially fast-tracks certain parts of the vaccine approval process.

University of North Carolina Health explains, "An EUA does not affect vaccine safety, because it does not impact development, such as research, clinical studies and the studying of side effects and adverse reactions. Instead, it speeds up manufacturing and administrative processes."

The COVID-19 vaccines were tested in large-scale trials with the public, which is pretty standard for vaccine testing. The Pfizer trials included 43,448 participants and found no safety concerns to preclude use in the public.

It’s also important to note, for both Moderna and Pfizer, the mRNA vaccine technology has been researched for 30 years.

Will COVID-19 vaccines be required for school, like other vaccine schedules?
As of right now, COVID-19 vaccines are not being required in schools.

All 50 states mandate childhood vaccines for public schooling – though those vaccines may differ from state to state a little bit. The federal government doesn’t really do that.

But Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box said recently the state has no plans to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for anyone, including schoolchildren.

Does the vaccine cause infertility?
Scientists haven't found evidence to support the rumor that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility.

In early December, German epidemiologist Wolfgang Wodarg teamed up with a former Pfizer employee to petition the European Medicines Agency to delay the study and approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. They argued, among other things, that a protein found in placenta (syncytin-1) might be so similar to one found in COVID-19 that a person's antibodies could confuse the two after receiving the vaccine, and end up attacking the protein in the placenta, resulting in infertility. The petition went viral.

But scientists say the coronavirus’s spike protein and syncytin-1 don't share enough genetic code to make them a match, so there's no reason for antibodies to attack syncytin-1. Even Wodarg, in his petition, writes “there is no indication whether antibodies against spike proteins of SARS viruses would also act like anti-Syncytin-1 antibodies.”

Brittani is the community engagement specialist for Side Effects Public Media. She can be reached at