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Childhood Vaccines: What They Are and Why Your Child Needs Them

Last Updated July 2024 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

A vaccine is a preventive treatment for certain medical diseases. These are diseases that are caused by infections and spread from person-to-person. Vaccines contain a weakened version of the infection or versions that resemble it. Most vaccines are given in childhood. Childhood vaccines help your child’s body build up a protection against the disease if or when they are exposed to it.

Vaccines are important. They not only help keep your child healthy, they help all children by limiting the spread of disease and possibly eliminating serious childhood diseases.

Infographic listing 8 facts about childhood vaccines

Path to improved health

Childhood vaccinations are required for certain situations, including travel and attending school. And many people have questions about vaccines in general, including:

When should my child be vaccinated?

Recommendations about when to have your child vaccinated changes from time to time. You can get a copy of the most current child and adolescent vaccination schedules from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Or you can ask your family doctor. Your child usually receives their first vaccine soon after they are born.

Are there any reasons my child should not be vaccinated?

In special situations, children should not be vaccinated. For example, some vaccines shouldn’t be given to children who have certain types of cancer or certain diseases. Vaccines should not be given to children who are taking drugs that lower the body’s ability to resist infection.

If your child has had a serious reaction to the first shot in a series of shots, talk to your family doctor about the pros and cons of giving your child the rest of the shots in the series.

Do vaccines have side effects?

Some vaccines may cause mild, temporary side effects. This includes fever, soreness, or a lump where the vaccine shot was given. Your family doctor will talk to you about possible side effects with certain vaccines.

Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about whether your child should receive a vaccine.

What is the flu vaccine (also called the influenza vaccine)?

This vaccine is available by shot or by nasal spray. The nasal-spray vaccine contains live but weakened viruses. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot or the nasal-spray vaccine. The flu vaccine is given at the beginning of the flu season, usually in October or November.

The flu shot is safe for children 6 months of age and older. The nasal spray vaccine is safe for children 2 years of age and older. Flu viruses change from year to year. It is important for your child to get the vaccine each year so that they will be protected. Children are more likely to have complications from the flu, such as having to stay in the hospital or even dying.

What is the DTaP vaccine?

This is 3 vaccines in 1 shot. It protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. It’s given as a series of 5 shots. The first is given when your child is 2 months old. The last is given when they are 4- to 6 years old. Diphtheria attacks the throat and heart. It can lead to heart failure and death. Tetanus is also called “lockjaw.” It can lead to severe muscle spasms and death. Pertussis (also called “whooping cough”) causes severe coughing. It makes it hard to breathe, eat, and drink. It can lead to pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage, and death. The DTaP vaccine protects your child against these diseases for about 10 years. The Tdap vaccine is used as a booster to the DTaP vaccine. It prevents tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. It’s given when your child is 11 years old or older.

What is the rotavirus vaccine?

The vaccine protects against the virus called rotavirus. Children receive a dose at 2 and 4 months of age, or a three-dose series at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. It depends on what your doctor recommends. All doses should be given before 8 months of age. Rotavirus causes diarrhea, mostly in babies and young children. The diarrhea can be severe and cause dehydration, often requiring hospitalization. Rotavirus can also cause vomiting and fever in babies.

After rotavirus vaccination, call your family doctor if your child has stomach pain with severe crying (which may be brief), vomiting, blood in the stool, or is acting weak or very irritable. This is especially important within the first seven days after rotavirus vaccination. Contact your doctor if your child has any of these signs, even if it has been several weeks since the last dose of vaccine.

What is the IPV vaccine?

The IPV (inactivated poliovirus) vaccine helps prevent polio. It’s given four times as a shot, from age 2 months to 6 years. Polio can cause muscle pain and paralysis of one or both legs or arms. It may also paralyze the muscles used to breathe and swallow. It can lead to death.

What is the MMR vaccine?

The MMR vaccine protects against the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). It’s given as 2 shots when your child is 1 year old and again when they are 4- to 6 years old.

The measles cause fever, rash, cough, runny nose, and watery eyes. It can also cause ear infections and pneumonia. Measles can also lead to more serious problems, such as brain swelling and even death.

The mumps cause fever, headache, and painful swelling of one or both of the major salivary glands. Mumps can lead to meningitis (infection of the coverings of the brain and spinal cord) and, very rarely, to brain swelling. Rarely, it can cause the testicles of boys or men to swell, which can make them unable to have children.

Rubella is also called the German measles. It causes a slight fever, a rash and swelling of the glands in the neck. Rubella can also cause brain swelling or a problem with bleeding.

If a pregnant woman catches rubella, it can cause her to lose her baby or have a baby who is blind or deaf or has trouble learning.

Some people have suggested that the MMR vaccine causes autism. However, research has shown that there is no link between autism and childhood vaccinations.

What is the Hib vaccine?

The Hib vaccine helps prevent Haemophilus influenza type b, a leading cause of serious illness in children. It can lead to meningitis, pneumonia, and a severe throat infection. The Hib vaccine is given as a series of 3 or 4 shots, from age 2 months to 15 months.

What is the varicella vaccine?

The varicella vaccine helps prevent chickenpox. It is given to children once after they are 12 months old and again at 4- to 6 years old, or to older children if they have never had chickenpox or been vaccinated.

What is the HBV vaccine?

The HBV vaccine helps prevent hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, an infection of the liver that can lead to liver cancer and death. The vaccine is given as a series of 3 shots, with the first shot given soon after birth.

What is the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine?

The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) protects against a type of bacteria that is a common cause of ear infections and pneumonia. This type of bacteria can also cause more serious illnesses, such as meningitis and bacteremia (infection in the blood stream). Infants and toddlers are given 4 doses of the vaccine at 2, 4, 6, and 12 months of age. The vaccine may also be used in older children who are at risk for pneumococcal infection.

What is the meningococcal conjugate vaccine?

The meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) protects against four strains (“types”) of bacterial meningitis caused by the bacteria N. meningitidis. Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. It is a serious illness that can cause high fever, headache, stiff neck, and confusion. It can also cause more serious complications, such as brain damage, hearing loss, or blindness.

Children should get the MCV4 vaccine at 11 to 12 years of age. Children older than 12 years of age who have not received the vaccine should receive it before starting high school.

What is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine helps prevent human papillomavirus infection, which can cause cervical cancer, anal cancer, head and neck cancers as well as genital warts.  It is given as a 2-shot series if given around the age of 11 or 12 years of age. The second dose is given 6 months later. Children who start the vaccine on or after their 15th birthday need three shots given over 6 months.

What is the COVID-19 vaccine?

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are available for children ages 6 months and older. They are designed to reduce severe illness, hospitalization, and death from the COVID-19 virus. The vaccine may reduce transmission of the virus, but it does not guarantee a child will not contract it. While it is not required for school attendance, the American Academy of Family Physicians has endorsed the vaccine. The Academy believes it will help prevent COVID-19 infection in this age group. It will also help children improve their development both emotionally and socially by reducing the need for future school closures, disruptions, and quarantine times. It will also allow sports, after-school and other school-based activities to happen without the risk and anxiety connected to the virus.

Things to consider

Vaccines are generally safe. Vaccine protection far outweighs the small risk of serious side effects. Thanks to vaccines, many serious childhood diseases are rare today. Without vaccines, diseases can return and impact large numbers of the population. For example, there was a measles outbreak in 2019. Measles is a serious disease that can lead to complications and death. Prior to the recent outbreak, measles cases were relatively low. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of cases in the 2019 outbreak were among people who did not get a measles vaccination.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How likely is it my child would get sick without getting the vaccines?
  • How can I protect my newborn from being exposed to another child who hasn’t been vaccinated?
  • Why do people believe vaccinations cause autism?
  • Can my child have an allergic reaction after a vaccine?
  • Should my child wear a mask in public to avoid COVID-19 even if they are vaccinated?


American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP): Immunization Schedules

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Infant and Childhood Immunization Resources

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