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People with underlying health conditions and COVID-19

9-minute read

If you develop symptoms such as severe shortness of breath or chest pain, call triple zero (000) immediately. Tell the call handler and the paramedics on arrival if you have COVID-19.

Which health conditions and illnesses increase my risk of serious illness if I develop COVID-19?

People with an underlying health condition, chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems are at greater risk of serious COVID-19 illness.

Having 2 or more conditions might increase your risk, regardless of your age. If your condition is severe or poorly controlled, this might also increase your risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

People with medical conditions should discuss their risk and how to protect themselves with their doctor.

There are a number of treatments and health conditions that mean you are at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Treatments that can increase your risk include:

  • have had an organ transplant and are on drugs that suppress your immune system
  • have had a bone marrow transplant in the past 2 years
  • are on immune suppressive therapy
  • have had blood cancer in the past 5 years
  • are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy

Health conditions that can increase your risk include:

  • chronic kidney failure
  • heart disease
  • chronic lung disease — excluding mild or moderate asthma
  • blood cancer (such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myelodysplastic syndrome)
  • non-haematological cancer (diagnosed in the past 5 years)
  • childhood cancer
  • diabetes
  • severe obesity with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 40 kilograms per square metres or more
  • chronic liver disease
  • some neurological conditions like stroke or dementia
  • some chronic inflammatory conditions and treatments
  • another primary or acquired immunodeficiency
  • poorly controlled blood pressure
  • severe mental health condition

Other factors might also increase the risk of severe illness including:

  • age — risk increases as you get older, even for those under 70
  • being male
  • poverty
  • smoking

ANTIVIRAL ELIGIBILITY — Use the COVID-19 Symptom and Antiviral Eligibility Checker to find out if you may be eligible for antiviral medication.

What should people with an underlying health condition do to protect themselves from COVID-19?

People with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems are at greater risk of more serious illness if they get COVID-19.

It's important to do everything you can to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

You should:

  • get vaccinated
  • maintain good hygiene - wash your hands often with soap and water. Use alcohol-based hand sanitisers when you can’t use soap and water
  • practise physical distancing by staying 1.5 metres away from other people whenever possible and avoid contact with others
  • avoid public gatherings and non-essential travel
  • isolate if you have or are suspected of having COVID-19
  • consider getting groceries and other essential items delivered

Make sure you continue to go to your usual or scheduled appointments with your doctor.

You can use telehealth services for routine or non-urgent medical help. You can also speak to your chemist about having your medication delivered to you.

If you’re working and you’re immunocompromised or have a chronic condition, talk to your employer or workplace about undertaking a risk assessment.

Can adults with an underlying health condition or compromised immune systems have COVID-19 vaccines?

If you have an underlying medical condition or compromised immune system, you can have the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect yourself, your family and the people around you.

There are only very limited medical circumstances where vaccination is not recommended, such as a previous case of anaphylaxis.

People with a pre-existing heart condition can still have the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine — but they should consult their GP, an immunisation specialist or a cardiologist about the best timing of vaccination and whether they recommend any additional precautions.

You should speak with your healthcare provider for advice on your own situation.

For more information, see the Australian’s Government’s COVID-19 vaccination shared decision guide for people with immunocompromise.

Can children with an underlying health condition or compromised immune systems have COVID-19 vaccines?

It’s strongly recommended that children with immunocompromise receive COVID-19 vaccination. Children with immunocompromise, including those living with HIV, have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including a higher risk of death.

Some children with immunocompromise may have a reduced immune response to the vaccine, so it’s important to consider other preventative measures, such as physical distancing, after vaccination.

Children aged 6 months to less than 5 years with severe immunocompromise or disability — or who have complex or multiple health conditions that increase their risk of getting severe COVID-19 — will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination from Monday 5 September 2022.

These include children with the following or similar conditions:

  • severe primary or secondary immunodeficiency, including those undergoing treatment for cancer, or on immunosuppressive treatments
  • bone marrow or stem cell transplant, or chimeric antigen T-cell (CAR-T) therapy
  • complex congenital cardiac disease
  • structural airway anomalies or chronic lung disease
  • type 1 diabetes mellitus
  • chronic neurological or neuromuscular conditions
  • a disability that requires frequent assistance with activities of daily living, such as severe cerebral palsy or Down Syndrome (Trisomy 21)

This isn't a complete list. If your child has a medical condition that isn't on this list, contact your healthcare professional to see if COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for them.

Do people with an underlying health condition need a third dose and a booster?

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has recommended a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as part of the primary vaccination course in people who are severely immunocompromised.

This recommendation applies to all individuals aged 5 years and over with certain conditions or on therapies leading to severe immunocompromise. This is to address the risk of suboptimal or non-response to the standard 2-dose schedule.

The third dose is intended to maximise the level of immune response to as close as possible to the general population. Third doses are NOT the same as booster shots.

ATAGI recommends that people aged 16 or older with severe immunocompromise receive a booster dose if 3 months has passed since they completed their 3-dose primary course.

Learn more about vaccines, third doses and boosters.

BOOK YOUR VACCINATION — Use the COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic Finder to book your COVID vaccination or booster.

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Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2022


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