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How does a Vaccine Work?

Nicole Madison
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Vaccines help a body prepare in advance to fight illnesses and potentially deadly diseases. Essentially, vaccines give the body a preview of a bacterium, virus, or toxin, allowing it to learn how to defend itself in advance. If the body is ever invaded by that particular pathogen after the vaccine has done its work, the body’s immune system is ready.

Most vaccines are administered in the form of a shot or a liquid that is consumed by mouth. However, some vaccines are inhaled as aerosols or powders. The majority of vaccines contain viruses or bacteria that have been weakened or killed. Others contain inactivated toxins. In their altered states, vaccine pathogens are typically safe and unable to cause disease.

When a weakened or dead pathogen is introduced into the bloodstream, the body’s B-cells go to work. It is these cells that are responsible for fighting disease-causing pathogens. Once the B-cells are stimulated to act, antibodies are formed and the body develops immunity to the particular pathogen. Once a person receives a vaccine and develops immunity, he or she is usually protected for life.

Sometimes vaccines do not provide lifetime immunity. For example, some vaccines, such as tetanus and pertussis, are only effective for a limited amount of time. In such cases, booster shots are necessary to maintain continuous vaccine protection. These booster doses are given at specific intervals following the initial vaccination.

One vaccine, the flu vaccine, must be given every year. This is because there are many strains of the flu. A vaccine given in one year may provide protection against certain strains of the flu virus, but when the next year’s flu season starts, vaccination against newer or different strains may be required. Furthermore, flu vaccines do not provide protection for a lifetime. After as little as one year, protection may be far less than adequate.

Most human beings are born with a limited immunity to a variety of diseases. This immunity is the result of antibodies that are passed on to infants by their mothers. Unfortunately, these antibodies are only capable of protecting infants for about a year after birth. Additionally, there are many serious diseases for which infants do not receive antibodies from their mothers. To protect human beings from infancy into adulthood, many vaccines are given in the first months of life.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison , Writer
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.

Discussion Comments

By anon301046 — On Nov 02, 2012

Any time you go stabbing complex chemistry/foreign elements into the body, you can expect the possibility of negative effects. My mom was a great cook, always giving us healthy stuff, but I had a terrible immune system growing up. When I was younger, I had headaches, etc. I felt led to push away all pharma products, inoculations, etc. and asked God to be my physician. No more headaches. Zero, in what -- 45 years now or whatever? I had some terrible ones as a kid.

And from using natural supplements, my immune system is top notch again. Nutrition supplements helped, but the L-arginine/L-citrulline mix is the capstone. That helps regenerate cell walls to get your cells fully functional again. I simply don't get sick anymore. Period.

For a while, I got a terrible flu here. Then with supplementing I got sick only a few days a year, and with much less violent sickness. Then, with the amino mix, zero days sick.

We can undo the damage I believe, with some of the new nutritional supplements. But I believe reliance on the contrived technology of vaccinations creates other complex dysfunctions that overall, cripple our natural immune systems. --Bob W.

By anon293035 — On Sep 23, 2012

I speak from experience, having two kids, that vaccination is not as safe as it is made out to be. Unfortunately, I did vaccinate my son according to schedule and he was sick constantly as an infant (and now has behavior problems), but my daughter was not yet and both mentally and physically, the difference is immense. At seven months, people think she is a year old mentally, even though she is a peanut. She is crawling and not afraid to ask for what she needs, but it is still not easy because she is a baby ,but having a normal predictability as to why something is happening is great.

I am not fully opposed to vaccines, but I don't think it's safe to give children as many as they get.

Just as you can't teach a one year old to write, you can't teach an infant body to fight a potential disease, not at two months anyway.

The first two years of life are crucial and it is best not to interfere with that with vaccines.

Also look up Donald W. Miller for more info.

By anon283206 — On Aug 02, 2012

"B. Evidence that vaccines ward off illnesses like whooping cough are *fact.* Evidence that vaccines cause autism is poor to non-existent."

85 percent of the recent outbreaks of whooping cough are from vaccinated people. Obviously it is not a *fact* that the vaccine wards off the illness.

By anon268210 — On May 13, 2012

No other vaccines have been as effective as the smallpox because there's so many people out there who don't get vaccinated. Herd immunity does work. You can build immunity by being outside and having a healthy lifestyle, but vitamin supplements will not stimulate antibody production. That's impossible.

Natural antibody production is random, so you may get natural immunity, but then again you are far more likely not to develop it. Why take a chance?

But hey, what do I know? Go die of rubella. Oh wait. The fact that herd immunity is around you means you can't. So you're depending on everyone else for your safety and possibly causing new strains to develop because the pathogens/viruses can be transmitted by you, rendering the vaccine useless by your own selfishness.

It is true that sometimes vaccines don't work on certain people, due to a defective immune system, but people with defective immune systems to that kind of extent are often so vulnerable they don't survive anyway. When administered correctly by trained professionals, vaccination works 100 percent. It's all the external factors of the idiots who don't get it that cause it to be less effective.

Oh and P.S. The autism-MMR link claim was made by a biased scientist, paid by a company against vaccinations. Learn the facts before you get all anti-vaccination. It saves millions of lives. People against vaccinations are against survival of the human species.

By anon255658 — On Mar 18, 2012

Not wanting to jump into the vaccinate or not to vaccinate debate right now. Just honestly asking: what is the science behind the tetanus vaccine? All of the other vaccines work on virus control.

Do white blood cells normally attack bacteria and toxic chemicals? If so this would totally change the view on how bacteria is suppose to coexist with men in their intestinal tract.

I would appreciate a medically professional answer to truly understand how this works.

By anon249048 — On Feb 19, 2012

Everyone over 50 think back. Do you know anyone who died or was damaged by measles or mumps or chicken pox? How many autistic or ADD kids were in your class, or your whole school?

If it is true that autism is just more easily diagnosed now, how many people do you know, really, according to the medical profession one out of a hundred who should have been considered autistic, think about it. Does it even make sense? Nothing said so far would make me believe that vaccinating my grandson would be a sound decision. I need to hear the truth before I change my mind.

By anon237131 — On Dec 27, 2011

I don't care if you vaccinate or not. It should be your choice. And I have no fear of you infecting me.

However, why is the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program paid for with taxpayer dollars? Shouldn't the pharmaceutical companies pay for the allergic reactions and deaths instead of taxpayers?

By anon159792 — On Mar 13, 2011

This argument is stupid. Let's all think about this for a moment. It's more dangerous to drive a car than to get a vaccine. Oh god! In that case let's make cars go away in case they hurt us! This is completely childish. If you want to prevent deaths or unhealthy things, then make smoking illegal. It is the number one killer. So, what's your choice? Fighting about vaccines or focusing on the big problems?

By anon158156 — On Mar 06, 2011

okay quick question: do red blood cells transport vaccines round the body? if not, how is it done?

By anon148982 — On Feb 03, 2011

I've been a nurse for 23 years and I've watched my fellow health care providers "educate" before giving the vaccine. The education amounts to "this is your --- vaccine and it will help you from getting sick." This is *not* balanced education nor is it education at all. It's stated as a fact not as a choice.

Our bodies are incredibly intelligent and they can fight the majority of challenges with our help. healthy water and food, sleep and as stress free living as we can. There is no such thing as herd immunity, and there is no such thing as prevention with vaccines that is irrefutable, so i simply ask that vaccines not be mandated and intelligent individuals given choice.

By anon145299 — On Jan 22, 2011

Vaccines can be extremely dangerous. There is a greater chance that your child will have an adverse reaction to the vaccine than if you just let your child build up their own immune system. Our bodies are incredibly designed. Why do I want to pump my child with all these toxins when we don't know the long term effects of the 30-plus vaccines we recommend for every child.

This is a huge industry and I would like to believe that the vaccines are in our best interest, but I have given up hope.

Why does my child need the hepatitis B vaccine when my wife and I don't have it. What's the point of giving it at birth? Why does my child need the vitamin K shot? It's a huge dose, and I can easily supplement my baby with this through my wife's breastmilk.

Why give the polio vaccine? How in the world my baby even catch polio? You might say that the reason you don't have to worry about polio is because of the vaccines, but the numbers clearly point to a decline in polio even before the vaccine came out. In other countries, the numbers were radically declining and this was in large part without the vaccine.

Why are we so afraid of every little bit of dirt and sickness? Our bodies will build up a natural immunity. Can you tell me why the autism numbers have skyrocketed? Couldn't this be from the thimerosal (mercury) that has been placed in so many of our vaccines. Why are people around the world catching the very same infection that the vaccines are trying to prevent. Could it be that our bodies don't all respond in the same way.

Even if there were a clear link to seizures and autism and deaths, it wouldn't matter to the medical community. They would just attribute it to SIDS or some other cause. No matter what, vaccines win and any anti-vaccine individual is putting their child at great risk. We want herd-immunity! Come on. Truth is very rarely among the herds and this is one example.

By anon144384 — On Jan 19, 2011

The science behind it all is to build antibodies, but yet this is how they test if someone has AIDS/HIV is if they have the antibodies present! And those who have HIV/AIDS antibodies actually have the disease. In a few words, there is the proof vaccines don't work. End of story!

By anon143840 — On Jan 18, 2011

In addition to my previous comment, I'd also like to say that people should be more concerned about living a healthy lifestyle and focusing on strengthening immunity through diet and supplements (Vitamin D). I think that many people have a false sense of security when it comes to vaccines, even though they are not proven to be very effective.

I say observe the masses and do the opposite in order to succeed.

By anon143839 — On Jan 18, 2011

"To not vaccinate your child is not just putting your own child at risk but will eventually put other people's children at risk also." What a load of nonsense! If the vaccines worked as they are believed to, then others who have obtained the vaccines have nothing to fear.

For those of you who believe that doctors know everything, think back to the mid 1900's where routine lobotomies were being performed and when trusted physicians were prescribing cigarettes to relieve stress.

We have to learn to think for ourselves and think outside the box.

By anon137649 — On Dec 28, 2010

As a member of a family without a medical background, I am honestly saddened by the absurd vaccine claims.

Just ask people for some scientific evidence and how "herd immunity" was tested, and be ready for some angry reactions.

Instead of just Jenner, look up BeChamp and question why one won out and not the other. Consider that smallpox is the only disease "considered" eliminated, and question why only one if vaccination is so "successful".

By anon129948 — On Nov 26, 2010

i work in a hospital and choose not to get the flu shot. they have instituted consequences for this choice, and i am wondering if this is legal.

By anon108294 — On Sep 02, 2010

As a member of a family with a medical background, I am honestly saddened by the absurd anti-vaccine claims. I have had my daughter immunized safe in the knowledge that she faces less danger from a disease than from the vaccine. It is risk grading.

A. The 'possible' effects of aspirin use long term are scary, but a one-off use to help a pain is safe. The same is true of vaccines.

B. Evidence that vaccines ward off illnesses like whooping cough are *fact.* Evidence that vaccines cause autism is poor to non-existent.

C. anon47062, anon49648: You are the living proof that Oprah Winfrey is a curse. You are so wrong it is sad. That is honestly not how these things work. I beg you to read a non-agenda page about vaccines or do you think homeopathy is real?

By anon83891 — On May 12, 2010

my mom and father got the swine flu vaccine around new year, now they can't walk at all, and they both have horrible back pain. before that my parents could walk.

I asked the doctor about that, but they said they are not related to the vaccine.

People need to know that the side effect of vaccine won't happen in one day, it will happen in a week or a few months. In my case, it happened with my mom in a week, and with my father it was after a month.

By anon62981 — On Jan 29, 2010

What about those of us who can't have the immunizations? it damn near killed my son to have the mmr. he had severe seizures after it at 12 months. if that were your son how would you feel?

I believe every parent should have the choice. we are not God. We act as god but in the end if we are going out, we are going out -- end of story. Don't be so judgmental. Everyone can have opinions without being mean.

By anon52627 — On Nov 16, 2009

For those of you posting that vaccination is a load of crap, I strongly urge you to reconsider. Though there are some reported cases where vaccination has produced ill side-effects, for the majority vaccination is a way of saving lives.

A vaccination is a weakened, inactive, detoxified poison (such as the tetanus vaccination) or only the components of the pathogen that produce immunity. Thus when this is injected into you the B-cells produce the antibodies to fight of the infection. Because the vaccination is weakened, this is easy to do. The memory cells in your body then remember the antibodies required to fight a specific infection and thus when you get the real infection the body can act quickly to stop it.

This means essentially that vaccination is a good thing and that when you are choosing to not vaccinate you are stopping the herd immunity effect, as mentioned by knittingpro, and also the chance to completely eradicate a potential disease, such as what happened with smallpox.

By anon51769 — On Nov 09, 2009

but what about what happens after?

By anon50927 — On Nov 02, 2009

I believe in knowledge. Knowledge is power. Educate yourself as much as possible and go with your gut feeling. Every parent is just trying to do what's best for their children. The blame game is not going to help anyone. It is a huge struggle because there is so much misguided information out there. Do not lean completely on your own understanding but also seek God for guidance.

By anon49648 — On Oct 21, 2009

If your child is vaccinated then they should be protected regardless if someone else's child isn't vaccinated. You need to look into the history of vaccinations and autism. Not only that you should also look at the ingredients in a vaccine. You can look online for the list. Then i would advise you to look up all the side of effects of the ingredients. For example the preservative called amphotericin b which is a drug used to treat fungus infections. Side effects include blood clots, blood defects, kidney problems, nausea and fever. That is just one out of the many that they use. You tell me that i am being selfish because i'd rather not inject my child with this crap. My child is most likely healthier than your child because when you inject babies with all this preservatives at such a young age or any age it causes immune responses that that trigger allergies, learning disorders, autism and eczema. If you do the research you will find the truth.

By anon48905 — On Oct 15, 2009

What is wrong with you people! Vaccines are there to help you! Because there is no cure yet, you get vaccinated, which sometimes is the cure! Because everyone else is immune and the disease is being controlled is the only reason why your kids are still alive! One day someone will be infected and no matter how much you deny it, its your fault!

By anon47711 — On Oct 06, 2009

I wonder how many people claiming that vaccination is unnecessary are trained medical professionals? Do you actually know what you are talking about or are you just repeating something someone on Oprah told you?

By anon47062 — On Oct 01, 2009

That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard "To not vaccinate your child is not just putting your own child at risk but will eventually put other people's children at risk also." Oh wait, no it's not, introducing vaccines in 1796 is. Where are you being spoon fed your information? It is commonly believed that the Salk vaccine was responsible for halting the polio epidemics that plagued American children in the 1940's and 1950's. If so, why did the epidemics also end in Europe, where polio vaccine was not so extensively used? When you or your child is vaccinated, you are injected with a laboratory altered form of that disease and thus have a possibility of passing it on to others. How cruel and inhumane of you to subject others to the disease. If you decide to vaccinate yourself and your child, keep them home for at least 48 hours so they don't infect others!

By anon43319 — On Aug 27, 2009

Its amazing how stupid people are about how your body works and the false immunity from vaccines.

By anon40679 — On Aug 10, 2009

However, you are trusting people who are hired by multi-million or billion dollar corporations to use these toxins appropriately. There is no sure way of knowing that the vaccines contain what they say they do or truly do what they say they do. The big protector against disease is our immune system, not the vaccines. Therefore, it would make more sense to try to boost our immune system without toxins and dead viruses. Anyone who says it can't be done or isn't worth looking into, is not thinking about human beings' best interest. Furthermore, a vaccine is supposed to reduce your risk of getting a vaccine, not prevent it. If it did prevent a virus, then it wouldn't matter if other people were immunized since the vaccine protects them from those infected. I think people put too much faith in a company that get profit off of treatment rather than prevention and cure. I'm not vaccinating myself and putting my individual health at risk (and my family's) because other people trust these big companies to inject dangerous ingredients into the people without questions. Meanwhile, after you get vaccinated, you are probably going go get a big mac, large fries and a frosty and go sit on the couch and watch American Idol.

By anon20992 — On Nov 08, 2008

I agree that vaccines are helpful for everyone, because when one person gets a vaccine, it lowers the percentage of those who get ill.

By knittingpro — On May 01, 2008

It seems like more and more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children now, but that can actually be seen as a very selfish decision. The only reason their children are safe even though they are not vaccinated is because just about everyone else's children are vaccinated. It's the herd immunity effect.

To not vaccinate your child is not just putting your own child at risk but will eventually put other people's children at risk also.

Nicole Madison

Nicole Madison


Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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