What is a vaccine? A mom and molecular biologist offers up simple tips for explaining to kids how vaccines work and what it means to get vaccinated for everything from COVID-19 to measles.

By Taryn Chapman
December 23, 2020
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I started talking to my kids about vaccines when they were babies. Yes, babies. That's what made me feel better about getting them their shots. Being a vaccine researcher, I never questioned whether or not I'd vaccinate, but it's still not an easy task as a parent to get your kids their shots—the tears, the pinch of pain, the doctors' appointments. Eventually it got easier for me, and maybe a little harder for them. But I kept talking.

Today, my elementary-aged children are fine with getting their shots, and I think that's because I never stopped the conversation. They're curious little creatures and talking about those scary things seems to help a lot. Now that coronavirus vaccines are headed our way, it's especially important to start talking about vaccines with your kids.

You don't have to be familiar with all the science mumbo jumbo to help your kids understand why they need to hold their arms out for their vaccines. When you start a conversation about vaccines with your child, I suggest addressing one common fear first: pain. The shot might hurt a little, but the tiny poke is so much better than getting sick from a terrible disease that might land you in the hospital. And no one wants that.

From there, here's how to answer the big questions little kids have about vaccines.

Credit: Illustration by Jillian Sellers. Syringe: Cactus Creative Studio/ Stocksy.

What Is a Vaccine?

Germs can make you really sick, and they're sometimes very dangerous. Doctors and scientists work very hard to find ways to keep people from getting sick and that's why they created vaccines.

A vaccine is a type of medicine that doesn't make you better, but keeps you from getting sick in the first place. It does this by teaching your body to fight off germs like viruses and bacteria. Vaccines are like putting on a seatbelt when you get in the car. The seatbelt keeps you safe if you should get in an accident, and by putting it on no matter what, you will always be prepared for the worst. Vaccines help your body be prepared for the disease if you should happen to encounter it out in the world.

How Do Vaccines Work and What Do They Do?

It might seem strange, but most vaccines actually put a germ into your body to keep you from getting sick from those types of germs in the future. The reason why vaccines can't make you sick is because the germ is either killed, really weakened, only a piece of itself, or in the case of some bacteria, its toxin. The germ gives your body a little taste of what it needs to fight off the germ. It's like a practice run. Your body doesn't know the difference between the germ in the vaccine and the dangerous germ out in the world.

Since a vaccine only pretends to infect the body, your body knocks out the vaccine germ really quickly. And the best part is once your body has fought off the germ, it will remember what it looks like. If that germ enters your body again, your body knows how to get rid of it before you even get sick or help you get less sick with something like the flu.

Why Are Vaccines So Important?

When you get a vaccine, you help keep other people healthy, too. There are some people who can't get vaccines or can't get vaccines yet. The way that many vaccines work is that you won't get sick from the germ you've been vaccinated for. Therefore, you won't be spreading germs around to other people who haven't gotten vaccines. And that means people who are not vaccinated won't get the germs from you and they won't get sick. Bonus! Vaccines protect you and all the people around you, too!

Are Vaccines Safe?

Some people wonder if it's OK to put vaccines into your body. The answer is yes. They're very safe! Many vaccines we get contain a liquid with the germ and some ingredients that the vaccine needs to work properly. The ingredients in vaccines are in very tiny amounts and do not hurt you. It's important to understand that vaccines are safe for your body and they are a really great medical tool we have to keep you safe from dangerous diseases.

So hold out your arm for that tiny poke. There's no reason not to. Thanks to vaccines, there are so many dangerous diseases you'll never have to catch!

Taryn Chapman is a molecular biologist, creator of The Vaccine Mom, a staff writer at Immunization Action Coalition, and a writer and vlogger for Vaccinate Your Family.

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