How do vaccines work?
Vaccines work by stimulating the production of antibodies in your immune system. Your body learns to recognize the disease, and you become immune. This immunization process means you’ll be less likely to get sick, and if you do get sick it will be less severe. You usually get vaccines with a hypodermic needle (aka shots) but some can be taken orally or by nasal spray.
Vaccines prevent you from getting sick, but they also prevent you from spreading disease to others. To understand how vaccines protect those around you, it’s important to first explain the concept of herd immunity.
“When a certain number of people in a community get a vaccine, it protects those who cannot get the vaccine, or are at higher risk of getting the disease,” explains Dr. Esposito. “These vulnerable populations include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. People with weaker immune systems due to cancer, chemotherapy, organ transplant, HIV and other illnesses may not be able to get vaccinated. But if the majority of the population gets vaccinated, it will protect the weakest of the ‘herd,’ and the disease will not spread widely.”
When the majority of a community is not vaccinated, herd immunity fails, and diseases that were previously under control can become an epidemic. This is why getting a basic flu shot every year is important—you may not be too worried about getting the flu, but you could pass it onto someone whose immune system couldn’t handle it.
“You’re really protecting your grandmother by getting that flu shot!” adds Dr. Esposito.
For an in-depth guide on immunization, check out our article Protecting your health with vaccines.
The benefits vs. the risks of childhood vaccination
One of the biggest concerns people have about vaccinating their children is the side effects they may experience. But these side effects are mild and go away within a couple of days, and according to the CDC, children have a 1 in a million chance of having a serious reaction to a vaccine, and autism is not caused by vaccines.
“Immunity absolutely outweighs the risk, or I wouldn't get vaccines or give them to my kids or my patients,” says Dr. Esposito. “The most common reactions are fever and swelling/redness at the injection site. This is normal and shouldn’t stop children from getting additional doses of the same vaccine in the future.”
Parents can treat any redness and swelling with a cool compress. If your child becomes too uncomfortable, you can ask your doctor if you should give them a non-aspirin pain reliever. However, Dr. Esposito cautions against giving your child pain relievers before they go to get shots, as this can dampen the immune response to the vaccine.
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