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Should Sepsis Survivors Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

February 18, 2021

As COVID-19 vaccines make their way across the country, some sepsis survivors wonder if they should be vaccinated. Every person’s decision to vaccinate should be based on their own circumstances, with input from their physician if there are any questions. This does not change for sepsis survivors. However, sepsis survivors can have a unique set of circumstances, especially if their illness was recent.

Sepsis Survivors More Vulnerable to Infection

Up to one-third of people who are discharged from the hospital after having sepsis are readmitted within three months – most often because of another infection. The numbers are highest among Black and Native American adults.

Sepsis survivors often have a weakened immune system for weeks after they return home, which puts them at risk for these new or repeat infections. Since COVID-19 is a viral infection, it stands to reason that a newer sepsis survivor would be at higher risk of contracting the infection if they are exposed to it.

Aside from having a higher chance of catching an infection, sepsis survivors who do become ill – even months and years later – can become sicker than people who never were hospitalized for sepsis for as many as five years after their sepsis hospitalization.

Children Are Also at Higher Risk

Vaccines for COVID-19 are not yet approved for children, but children who were hospitalized for sepsis are also at higher risk for repeat infections and more serious illnesses, just as adults. More than one in five children who were in the hospital for sepsis have to be readmitted within three months. Half of those readmissions are related to either another infection or sepsis.

Sepsis Survivors and COVID: Why These Facts Are Important

It is important that people understand the connection between sepsis survivorship and the increased risk of contracting another infection for at least a while after recovery, especially during a pandemic like one the world is experiencing now. We know that infection prevention measures work. Frequent and proper hand washing, physical distancing, and proper wearing of effective masks can help reduce the spread of COVID-19. And now, new vaccines can help reduce the contagion even further.

Currently, there are two COVID-19 vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, approved for use in the United States. There is hope of more approvals in the near future.

The two current vaccines use a new technology that doesn’t contain the virus. None of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in development use the live virus either. In other words, none of the vaccines can cause the infection. Instead, they teach your body’s immune system to recognize the virus and fight it, preventing you from becoming seriously ill.

When your body does this it may cause symptoms. These symptoms, although milder, are similar to what you might have if you had the actual virus. This is normal and they generally last a day or two.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are two-step vaccines. Therefore, you need to continue practicing infection prevention after you get your first shot. Full immunity is not present until you have received both doses. When get that second dose, ask how long it takes for the full immunity to kick in.

As with any medication – and a vaccine is a medication – there is a chance of an allergic reaction. For this reason, you should remain at the clinic or injection site for at least 15 minutes after your dose. If you have had an allergic reaction to a vaccine before, 30 minutes.

Can Someone Get Sepsis from a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Some people have expressed concern about COVID-19 vaccines and whether they can cause sepsis. This is a good question given that sepsis is the body’s overactive immune response to an infection. If you get severe COVID, you develop viral sepsis. But since the COVID vaccines do not cause infection, they do not cause sepsis. The vaccines encourage your immune system to mount a defense against the virus if you come in contact with it.

Keep in mind, however, that sepsis can occur if you are exposed to the infection before the vaccine makes you immune.

Is There Anyone Who Should Not Get a COVID-19 Vaccination?

So, should sepsis survivors be vaccinated against COVID? Being a sepsis survivor is not a reason not to be vaccinated against the virus, but there may be other reasons, such as:

  • Anyone who has had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine ingredient
  • Children (not yet in clinical trials)

People with other concerns, such as other severe allergies, severe autoimmune disorders, or even women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, should speak with their healthcare provider for guidance.

To learn more about COVID-19, visit the Sepsis Alliance COVID-19 Resource Page.

Editor’s Note: The article was updated on March 3rd to add information regarding whether the vaccine can cause sepsis.