How Vaccines Work

December 29, 2020 at 10:31 am 3 comments

Vaccines aren’t so scary

Vaccines make a lot of people nervous to the point where there are entire communities rejecting them and even refusing to give their children basic vaccinations. This type of thinking is very dangerous and the reason why diseases like polio and measles are making a comeback. It’s worth looking at how vaccines work and whether or not there’s any potential harm. For example, can the flu shot really give you the flu? We’ll delve into vaccine science, focusing a bit on flu shots.

Marco Verch (CC 2.0)

How vaccines work

When a disease-inducing organism, known as a pathogen, enters our system, our immune system can fight it off. The immune system produces antibodies—proteins that react to a specific pathogen. Once an antibody recognizes a pathogen, the entire immune system leaps into attack mode and the pathogen is destroyed. The problem is that if it’s a new pathogen—like, say, the flu when you haven’t had a flu shot—it takes time for the body to recognize and defend against it. The immune system has to “learn” about each new pathogen and that takes time. In the meantime, the person in question is probably pretty sick! Vaccines work by containing a deactivated version of the pathogen in question. By injecting it, the immune system gets a chance to learn about it and produce the necessary antibodies. This means that the next time the immune system runs into that particular pathogen, it’ll be ready to strike. In the case of the flu shot, this means killing the flu virus before it gets a chance to make you sick.

Can the flu shot give you the flu?

A lot of people think that the flu shot can give you the flu…after all, it contains the virus! The truth is that this is impossible as the virus has been killed and is inactivated. Other vaccines use a single protein derived from the flu virus. If you get the flu after getting the shot, you were just unlucky and picked up a less common strain that wasn’t in the vaccine. That brings me to my next point: how flu shots are designed.

How flu shots are designed

There isn’t a single flu virus but rather tons of strain mutations. This means that there isn’t a single flu shot—each year, a new one is designed, tested, and distributed. The World Health Organization, in conjunction with other organizations such as the Center for Disease Control, collects information from over one hundred countries on the most common flu strains that year as well as how fast they’re spreading. Decisions are also made based on how easy it would be to create and distribute vaccines for a particular strain; viruses are grown in chicken eggs and some strains are harder than others to grow. Each yearly flu shot contains a few (usually three or four) virus strains.

Why does my arm hurt?

Most people experience some amount of pain in their arm after a shot. There are two causes. One is that the muscle is sore at the injection site—normal pain from being poked with a needle. The second cause of arm pain is your immune system doing its job and making antibodies. Although a positive thing, this can cause pain and swelling. If the pain doesn’t go away after a few days, contact your doctor and watch for more serious symptoms like a high fever or difficulty breathing. These can be signs of an allergic reaction.

Vaccine ingredients

Some people are concerned about a vaccine preservative called thimerosal, which contains mercury. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the same type of mercury that causes mercury poisoning. Still, people were worried, and it was taken out of all vaccines except multidose flu shots (even then, thimerosal-free flu shots exist). Later, at least ten studies showed that thimerosal is perfectly safe.

Another ingredient that often raises concern is formaldehyde. It’s used to kill the viruses during the vaccine manufacturing process and trace amounts still exist in the shot. That sounds scary but we’re talking about tiny amounts—much lower than what’s found naturally in the body (that’s right, your body naturally produces it!).

Aluminum salts are also found in vaccines to help increase your body’s response to the shot. These salts are the same kind you’d find in drinking water, antacids, aspirin, and deodorant. There’s nothing to fear when it comes to aluminum in vaccines.

Trace amounts of residual antibiotics (used during the vaccine manufacturing process to prevent contamination) are also found in vaccines but manufacturers specifically pick out antibiotics that are unlikely to trigger allergic reactions—you won’t find penicillin in your flu shot! Also found in vaccines: gelatin (used to stabilize the vaccine), sugar, and, in some cases, egg protein (remember how we learned about flu viruses being grown in eggs?). If you’re allergic to eggs, don’t fear, there are now flu shots on the market that don’t contain egg protein. These shots are made with viruses that were grown in cells.

Hopefully this list can put your mind at ease—there’s nothing “toxic” about vaccine ingredients, regardless of what you might read elsewhere on the internet.

Vaccines don’t cause autism

Just to be clear: vaccines DON’T cause autism. There is absolutely no link and several studies have been done on the subject. Some people have suggested that thimerosal causes autism. It was even removed from childhood vaccines, minus the flu shot, as a precaution. As noted above, thimerosal has been found to be perfectly safe. There just isn’t any evidence to suggest that vaccines cause autism. That being said, even if there was a link, is it worth potential death to avoid autism? Is autism seriously worse than death? That line of thinking is problematic to the autism community.

When in doubt, do some research on trusted health websites such as the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. You’ll find that vaccines aren’t so scary—they’re actually medical marvels. While I’m at it, don’t forget to get your flu shot!

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Sources: WHO, UPMC, CDC, CDC 2, CDC 3

Entry filed under: Health and Beauty. Tags: , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ben  |  December 30, 2020 at 9:29 am

    I remember when this blog was cool and weird facts rather than middle school science lessons. This should be basic knowledge and the lack of this knowledge frankly makes me hope covid wipes out humanity. (Then again I am a cynical bastard.)

    • 2. Lindy  |  January 14, 2021 at 11:31 pm

      My goodness Ben… you are pretty cynical. What about all of us who believe in science, listen to the medical experts, self-quarantine, wear mask whenever we go out… do we have to get wiped out too?

  • 3. achmed  |  April 8, 2022 at 5:30 am

    An inactivated virus is not how most Covid vaccines work in the modern day – the common vector DNA (e.g. J&J, AZ) and mRNA vaccines provide genetic instructions for the body to make a key protein in the virus.


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