3 Things People with Allergies Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccines

The promising news about the new vaccines for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), one made by Pfizer and the other by Moderna, was followed by reports out of the United Kingdom about two instances where vaccine recipients had severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) to the Pfizer vaccine.

As of Dec. 22, only six people in the United States who’ve received the Pfizer vaccine have had severe allergic reactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Their reactions were halted by a medication called epinephrine, but this news still has millions of Americans with allergies wondering what this means for them.

We talked to Edwin Kim, MD, director of the UNC Food Allergy Initiative, to learn more.

1. Allergic reactions to the vaccines are very rare, but if you’ve had one in the past, talk to your doctor before getting vaccinated.

Although there have been a few reports of severe reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines, most people—even those who have had severe allergic reactions in the past—will still be able to get the vaccines, Dr. Kim says.

There were no reports of anaphylaxis during trials for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and both included people with allergies that ranged from food and pollen to previous severe allergic reactions. The only individuals who weren’t allowed to participate in the Pfizer study were those with a serious allergic reaction to a previous vaccine of any kind or those who were allergic to ingredients in the vaccine.

As of right now, it is unclear why any of the severe allergic reactions occurred. It’s possible that one of the ingredients in the vaccines, called polyethylene glycol or PEG, could be the cause.

“There are definitely reports of some folks who’ve had allergic reactions to PEG, but it’s rare. PEG is a component of a lot of different types of medications,” Dr. Kim says. “It’s actually the main component of MiraLAX, so many kids (and adults) out there have been on it routinely.”

If you have ever had a severe allergic reaction to any ingredient in the Pfizer vaccine or the Moderna vaccine, the CDC recommends that you should not get that specific vaccine.

Although a history of allergic reactions to other vaccines may not indicate an allergy to this one, if you have had a severe allergic reaction to other vaccines, you should ask your doctor if you should get a COVID-19 vaccine. Your doctor will help you decide if it is safe for you to be vaccinated.

“This is a brand new thing so maybe let other people go first if you’ve had anaphylaxis to a vaccine, or just hold off and let’s learn some more before you try to do it,” Dr. Kim says.

If you have a serious allergy to other things—such as food, bees or pollen—there does not appear to be an increased risk of having a serious reaction to the vaccines.

“There’s not a concern about it being produced in chicken eggs or there being any sort of food component that is related to the production of this vaccine. So, there’s not a reason to expect an increased risk in food allergy patients,” Dr. Kim says.

People with severe allergies to food, pets, latex or environmental agents such as pollen, as well as people with allergies to oral medication or a family history of severe allergic reactions can still get vaccinated, the CDC says.

2. All patients are monitored after receiving the vaccines.

Everyone who gets a COVID-19 vaccine is monitored afterward to make sure he or she doesn’t have a reaction. If you have a history of severe allergic reactions, you should be monitored for 30 minutes after getting the shot. Everyone else is monitored for 15 minutes.

“The likelihood of something happening is very small, and if it were to happen, medical staff are fully prepared,” Dr. Kim says. “It’s part of the rules on administering everywhere that there is an observation period, all the right medication (epinephrine) is available, and everyone has the right training to make sure we keep people safe.”

Severe allergic reactions can cause shortness of breath, rash all over the body, racing heart and swelling of the face and/or throat.

The CDC says anyone who had a severe reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine should not get the second dose. It defined severe as needing the medication epinephrine or treatment in a hospital. Redness, itching or swelling at the injection site are normal side effects and not considered problematic.

3. The vaccines are our best hope of things returning to normal one day.

Cases of COVID-19 continue to surge in the United States with more than 330,000 deaths. The news about the efficacy of these two vaccines is encouraging and an important step in helping us beat this virus and save lives.

“We know how much COVID-19 is out there, the transmission rate is humongous. For many people, there’s a high likelihood of getting really sick if you get it. More than 300,000 people have died from this,” Dr. Kim says.

That’s why it’s critical to weigh risks and benefits of contracting COVID-19 and of getting the vaccines.

“The benefit of the vaccines are very, very clear and very measurable compared to the risk of allergic reactions, which we know is a very, very small number and a complete unknown,” Dr. Kim says. “A difference with those allergic reactions is that we know how to treat and take care of those.”

Click here for the latest information on the COVID-19 vaccines or visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

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