Allergy, Immunodeficiency, Autoimmunity and COVID-19 Vaccination Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
24 February 2021
This information has been developed by ASCIA, the peak professional body of clinical immunology/allergy specialists in Australia and New Zealand, to answer questions regarding COVID-19 vaccination in relation to allergy, immunodeficiency and autoimmunity. ASCIA will update this FAQ when new information is available.
1. Why is the COVID-19 vaccination program important?
Vaccination is an important way to reduce the risk of developing infectious diseases which can easily spread. This includes COVID-19, which is caused by infection with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
Immunity occurs after the vaccine stimulates a person’s immune system to make antibodies (immunoglobulins) to help protect the body from future infections. This means that if a person is vaccinated, they will be less likely to get COVID-19. Even if a person does get infected, it is likely to be a milder illness.
Public health measures and restrictions that were implemented by the Australian and New Zealand governments since March 2020 have been successful in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in our countries. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major cause of illness and deaths in other countries.
This means that vaccination programs are required throughout the world, including Australia and New Zealand.
2. Which COVID-19 vaccines have been approved in Australia and New Zealand?
Pfizer/BioNTech COMIRNATY mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine has been provisionally approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), part of the Australian Government Department of Health, and by Medsafe in New Zealand for people 16 years and older. This vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, vaccine ingredients are listed at https://www.tga.gov.au/apm-summary/comirnaty and detailed information is on the following websites:
- TGA https://www.tga.gov.au/media-release/tga-provisionally-approves-pfizer-covid-19-vaccine
- New Zealand Ministry of Health https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-vaccines/covid-19-vaccine-safety-and-approval
Astra Zeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine (viral vector) has been provisionally approved by the TGA for people 18 years or older. This vaccine will be manufactured in Australia by CSL Behring and needs to be stored at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. For details go to https://www.tga.gov.au/media-release/tga-provisionally-approves-astrazenecas-covid-19-vaccine
Biocelect/Novavax COVID-19 vaccine (protein subunit) has been granted provisional determination by the TGA.
Other COVID-19 vaccines have been developed using different technologies, including Moderna (mRNA-based), and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen (viral vector). Some of these may be assessed by authorities in Australia and New Zealand, subject to government agreements with vaccine suppliers.
The COVID-19 vaccines listed above are not live-attenuated vaccines and are safe for people with immune system disorders such as allergy, immunodeficiency or autoimmune conditions.
Allergic reactions to COVID-19 vaccines are rare. However, if there is a high risk of an allergic reaction to one of the vaccines, it may be possible to have another vaccine, subject to availability and medical advice.
3. What are common side effects of vaccines?
Vaccinations can cause short-term mild side effects in some people.
Vaccines are usually given as an injection into the upper arm and common side effects include injection site reactions, such as local pain, redness and swelling. Other side effects include fever, joint pain, muscle aches, headache, tiredness, or worsened eczema a day after vaccination.
These common side effects indicate the start of an immune response, which helps prevent people from getting COVID-19. Side effects do not usually require any treatment, other than paracetamol for fever or discomfort.
4. What are the signs/symptoms of allergic reactions to vaccines?
Allergic reactions to vaccines are rare.
Mild to moderate allergic reaction signs/symptoms include rapid onset swelling of face, lips and/or eyes, tingling mouth, hives (urticaria) or welts, and abdominal pain/vomiting. A mild to moderate allergic reaction may sometimes progress to a severe allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis to vaccines is extremely rare, and is indicated by any one of the following signs:
- Difficult/noisy breathing
- Swelling of the tongue
- Swelling/tightness in throat*
- Wheeze or persistent cough
- Difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice
- Persistent dizziness and/or collapse*
*Some conditions can appear like allergic reactions, including non-allergic rashes, fainting and stress responses. Any suspected allergic reactions should be reported to the vaccination centre.
5. How is anaphylaxis to vaccines treated?
Anaphylaxis can be life threatening and should always be treated as a medical emergency. Most cases of anaphylaxis to vaccines occur within 20 to 30 minutes of vaccination, and respond to one or two doses of adrenaline (epinephrine).
If someone has anaphylaxis, they need immediate treatment with adrenaline, and the ASCIA First Aid Plan for Anaphylaxis should be followed www.allergy.org.au/hp/ascia-plans-action-and-treatment#r2
If a person who is at risk of anaphylaxis to foods, insects or drugs, has any of the symptoms of anaphylaxis after they have the COVID-19 vaccine, they should follow their ASCIA Action Plan for Anaphylaxis.
Health professionals who give vaccines in Australia and New Zealand should all be trained in the emergency treatment of anaphylaxis, and adrenaline should be readily available at all vaccination centres.
ASCIA Action Plans for Anaphylaxis, ASCIA First Aid Plans for Anaphylaxis and adrenaline injector instructions are available on the ASCIA website www.allergy.org.au/anaphylaxis
ASCIA anaphylaxis e-training is available at www.allergy.org.au/about-ascia/about-ascia-e-training
6. What substances in COVID-19 vaccines can cause allergic reactions?
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) also known as macrogol, is used to manufacture the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
- Different forms of PEG are found in tablets, laxatives, hand sanitiser gels, injectable corticosteroids and progesterone, cosmetics and bathroom products.
- PEG can cause contact dermatitis in some people.
- Allergic reactions to PEG are rare, but it is recognised as a hidden allergen that can trigger anaphylaxis to multiple classes of drugs.
- It is uncertain if PEG or another ingredient may be the cause of reported vaccine anaphylaxis.
- The estimated risk of anaphylaxis to the COVID-19 vaccine is extremely low, at around one in 100,000 doses, but it may be wise for people with known PEG allergy to request the other vaccine.
Polysorbate 80 is an ingredient in the Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which is chemically related to PEG.
- Data from the initial one million doses in the UK has not shown any cases of anaphylaxis for this vaccine.
7. What happens if you have a reaction to the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?
Both the Pfizer and Astra Zeneca vaccines require a second dose, which provides more long-term protection from COVID-19:
- For the Pfizer vaccine the second dose is usually given 3 weeks (21 days) after the first dose.
- For the Astra Zeneca vaccine the second dose is usually given 12 weeks after the first dose, but this can range from 4 to 12 weeks.
After each dose there should be an observation period of 15 minutes:
- If you have a non-allergic reaction to the first dose you can still receive the second dose. These reactions include fainting (vasovagal syncope) and skin reactions other than hives (urticaria).
- If you have a mild or moderate allergic reaction, such as a skin reaction, including hives (urticaria), to the first dose, you should receive the second dose with a longer observation period, of at least 30 minutes.
- If you have anaphylaxis to the first dose, you should be referred to a clinical immunology/allergy specialist for assessment, before a second dose is considered.
There will be at least two different types of vaccines available. This means that if someone is allergic to one type of vaccine, they may be able to have another type of vaccine, without having an allergic reaction.
8. Are COVID-19 vaccines safe for people with allergies?
The Pfizer and Astra Zeneca vaccines are both safe for people with allergies. There is no evidence that people with allergic conditions such as asthma, hay fever, food allergy or insect sting allergy are at any greater risk of vaccine allergy compared to the general population.
Unlike some other vaccines, there is no food, gelatin or latex in the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently available, and they are not grown in eggs. If a person has had an allergic reaction to another vaccine, this does not mean that they will also be allergic to the COVID-19 vaccine.
People with a known PEG allergy or previous anaphylaxis to multiple drugs (medications) should see their clinical immunology/allergy specialist to assess and confirm their allergy. The AstraZeneca vaccine may be a suitable alternative to the Pfizer vaccine if PEG allergy is confirmed.
9. Do allergy treatments need to be stopped to have a COVID-19 vaccine?
It is important that regular hay fever (allergic rhinitis), eczema (atopic dermatitis) and asthma treatments are continued when having the COVID-19 vaccine. However, it is recommended that allergen immunotherapy (AIT) or venom immunotherapy (VIT) injections should not be given within 48 hours of the COVID-19 vaccine injection. This avoids confusion about the cause of side effects or allergic reactions, if they occur in response to the COVID-19 vaccine or immunotherapy.
10. Are COVID-19 vaccines safe for people with immunodeficiencies or autoimmune conditions?
The Pfizer and Astra Zeneca vaccines are both safe for people with primary or secondary immunodeficiencies, and autoimmune conditions, who are not considered to be at greater risk of vaccine allergy compared to the general population.
People with certain pre-existing medical conditions have been identified as one of the initial priority groups for COVID-19 vaccines. This includes people with immunodeficiencies and autoimmune conditions, who are immunocompromised and are therefore at greater risk of any infections.
People with immunodeficiencies and/or autoimmune conditions should follow the usual advice from their clinical immunology/allergy specialist or rheumatologist regarding vaccinations or ask for specific advice regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.
11. Do immunodeficiency or autoimmune treatments need to be stopped to have a COVID-19 vaccine?
It is important that regular treatments for immunodeficiencies and autoimmune conditions are continued, because stopping these treatments can place people with these conditions at greater risk from COVID-19.
Vaccination should occur on a different day (if possible) from regular infusion treatments, such as immunoglobulin (Ig) or immunosuppressant infusions. For example, people on monthly intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg) may be advised by their specialist to be vaccinated two weeks after an IVIg infusion. This avoids confusion about the cause of side effects or allergic reactions, if they occur in response to the COVID-19 vaccine or the infusion treatment.
12. Can the COVID-19 vaccine be given if a person has other medical conditions?
COVID-19 vaccines have initially been tested in healthy adults, before being tested on more vulnerable people, to provide confidence that the vaccine is safe for use in the larger general population.
If a person is being treated for other medical conditions or is in a clinical trial, they should ask their doctor for advice regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.
Surgery guidelines recommend that people do not have major surgery and vaccines within one week of each other. This is because both surgery and the vaccine can cause a fever.
13. Can the COVID-19 vaccine be given at the same time as the influenza (flu) vaccine?
It is not recommended to have a flu vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine on the same day. The preferred minimum interval between a dose of seasonal flu vaccine and a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine is two weeks.
14. Are there any people who should not receive the COVID-19 vaccine?
People who have anaphylaxis in response to the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine should be referred to a clinical immunology/allergy specialist to be assessed before they consider receiving a second dose,
People with a confirmed allergy to ingredients in a vaccine (such as PEG) should discuss having another type of vaccine that does not contain that ingredient with their clinical immunology/allergy specialist.
15. Can the COVID-19 vaccine be given to pregnant or breastfeeding women?
Based on clinical trials of other similar vaccines, it is unlikely that COVID-19 vaccines pose a risk to a pregnant woman or her baby. However, pregnant and breastfeeding women have not been included in initial COVID-19 trials. If a pregnant woman has a medical condition that may place her at high risk of having serious complications due to COVID-19, she should discuss COVID-19 vaccination with her obstetrician, GP and/or midwife.
The Australian Government has developed a decision aid for COVID-19 vaccination in women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning pregnancy:
16. Why is the COVID-19 vaccine not currently available for children under 16 years of age?
COVID-19 vaccines are generally not recommended for children under 16 for the following reasons:
- Children and young people are at low risk of COVID-19.
- Clinical trials for the vaccines in children have only recently begun.
- COVID-19 vaccines are not yet registered for use in children under 16 years of age.
It is possible that these recommendations may change once clinical trials in children have been completed.
17. How long does immunity due to the COVID-19 vaccine last?
COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials show that the vaccines are very effective in preventing people from getting severe disease. However, there is limited information from clinical trials to tell us how long the immunity due to vaccination lasts, and if vaccinated people can still spread the virus to other people.
18. Do people still need to have the vaccine if they have already had COVID-19?
It is possible for people who have already had COVID-19 to have the vaccine. The vaccine can offer more protection or boost any antibodies (immunoglobulins) that the body has already made in response to COVID-19. Vaccination is therefore recommended even if a person has already had COVID-19.
19. Will COVID-19 vaccines be effective against new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus?
Clinical trials have shown that the vaccine stimulates the immune system to make antibodies (immunoglobulins) that are able to respond to a variety of mutations.
Technology used in vaccine development is adaptable to change if this occurs, in the same way that the influenza vaccine ingredients also change each season. Developments in this area will be closely monitored.
20. Do any measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 need to be taken if you are vaccinated?
Until we know if vaccines prevent the spread of COVID-19, and how long immunity lasts due to the vaccine, it is very important that the following measures continue to be followed, even if you have been vaccinated:
- Hand hygiene – Regular, thorough hand washing with soap and water is vital to prevent infections, especially after using the bathroom and before eating. Hand sanitiser may be used if soap is unavailable.
- Respiratory hygiene - Physical distancing and covering the mouth and nose with a bent elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing, then disposing of the used tissue immediately, can prevent infections.
- Stay home if you are unwell -If anyone has a fever or cough, they should stay home, seek medical attention (call in advance), and follow health authority instructions.
- Follow government advice and restrictions - This includes the measures listed above.
For further information go to www.allergy.org.au/members/covid-19
© ASCIA 2021
ASCIA is the peak professional body of clinical immunology/allergy specialists in Australia and New Zealand.
ASCIA resources are based on published literature and expert review, however, they are not intended to replace medical advice.
The content of ASCIA resources is not influenced by any commercial organisations.
For more information go to www.allergy.org.au
To donate to allergy and immunology research go to www.allergyimmunology.org.au