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Chronic Conditions and COVID Vaccines: The Rules Are Different

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on February 25, 2022

Anyone can catch COVID-19. But it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Serious complications are more likely if you also have other health conditions. And some medical treatments can impact your ability to fight off the virus.

Even so, vaccines are still the best way to protect yourself from serious illness or death from COVID-19. But you might need to follow different recommendations than someone who doesn’t have a chronic condition. Here’s what you need to know.

Which Conditions Put You at Risk?

The CDC keeps track of medical conditions that raise the odds you’ll get very sick from COVID-19. You can visit their website to see all of them, but some chronic conditions on that list include: 

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Heart, lung, and kidney diseases
  • Use of immunosuppressive drugs
  • Obesity

Other conditions include:

  • Some disabilities
  • Mood disorders, such as depression
  • Schizophrenia

Can You Follow General Vaccine Rules?

Certain chronic conditions fall under regular vaccine guidelines. What’s right for you depends on how your health problems or medications affect your immune system. Work with your doctor to find the best way to stay up to date with your vaccines.

Everyone who gets fully vaccinated completes a “primary series” of shots. If you’re ages 12 or older, the CDC recommends you also get a booster when it’s time. You’re considered optimally protected after you’ve gotten all your vaccines and boosters.

When possible, the CDC recommends mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna over Johnson and Johnson’s vaccine. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of all your choices.

General guidelines for each vaccine include:

  • Pfizer (5 and older). You’ll get a two-dose series followed by a booster at least 5 months after your second shot. 
  • Moderna (18 and older). Like Pfizer, you’ll get a 2-dose series followed by a booster at least 5 months after your second shot.
  • Johnson & Johnson. Your doctor might suggest this shot if you have an allergy to mRNA vaccines or one isn’t available. You’ll get one shot followed by a booster at least 2 months later.

Who Needs an Additional Dose?

You might not respond strongly to the first round of vaccines if you have a weakened immune system. An extra dose of the same vaccine might help you build more protection against COVID-19. That’s called an additional dose. It’s another shot in your primary series, not a booster.

The CDC strongly encourages additional doses for people ages 5 and older who are moderately to severely immunocompromised. 

Certain medical conditions and treatments can weaken your immune system, including:

  • Treatment for solid tumors or blood cancer
  • Stem cell treatment within the past 2 years
  • Advanced or untreated HIV
  • Certain immune system disorders
  • Medications to suppress your immune system

Talk to your doctor if you take medication but you’re not sure if it weakens your immune system. Some of those drugs might include:

  • Biologics
  • Immunosuppressive drugs for organ transplant
  • Corticosteroids
  • Cancer drugs

Your health care team will let you know if you might benefit from an additional dose. They’ll consider your other health conditions, how COVID-19 is spreading in your community, and any current or future therapies that might affect how your body responds to the vaccine.

Your doctor might delay your vaccine in some situations. That includes during medical treatment or surgeries that weaken your immune system for a certain period of time. They’ll let you know when it’s best to schedule your shots.  

If you do need an additional dose, here are the guidelines for each:

Pfizer (5 and older). You’ll get a three-dose primary series followed by a booster at least 3 months after your third dose.

Moderna (18 and older). Like Pfizer, this is a three-dose series followed by a booster at least 3 months after your third dose.

Johnson & Johnson. Experts aren’t sure if you’ll have an improved immune response with an additional dose of this vaccine. If possible, you should get an additional dose with an mRNA vaccine.

What Is Revaccination?

This is repeat doses of vaccine. It’s something your doctor might suggest if you were vaccinated for COVID-19 before or during certain kinds of medical therapies. Work with your health care team to decide if revaccination is right for you.

Protect Your Health

It’s important to stay up to date with all your COVID-19 vaccines, including any future boosters or additional doses. But there are other steps you can take to stay healthy, including:

Follow your regular treatment plan. Take your medication exactly how your doctor tells you to. Bring up any health concerns that stem from your drug therapies. Your doctor will let you know if it’s safe to make any changes to your care plan.

Take preventive steps. If COVID-19 is high in your area, you can also:

  • Wear a mask that fits well.
  • Avoid crowds.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Keep track of your symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if you feel sick.

Get medical care when you need to. Schedule routine visits and keep up with your preventive care. Check in with your doctor whenever you have any health issues. A telehealth visit may be an option. But hospitals and clinics also have plans in place to protect you from COVID-19.

Show Sources

Photo Credit: Alden Chadwick / Getty Images

SOURCES:

CDC: “COVID-19 – Medical Conditions,” “COVID-19 – Stay Up to Date with Your Vaccines,” “Vaccines & Immunizations — Interim Clinical Considerations,” “COVID-19 – COVID-19 Vaccines for Moderately to Severely Immunocompromised People,” “Vaccines & Immunizations – Talking with Patients who are Immunocompromised,” “COVID-19 – Underlying Medical Conditions.”

Yale University – Yale Health: “Information for Special Populations and the COVID-19 vaccine.”

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