Childhood vaccines: Tough questions, straight answers

Do vaccines cause autism? Is it OK to skip certain vaccines? Get the facts on these and other common questions.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Part of taking care of kids is setting them up for a healthy future. Vaccines play a big part in health.

Vaccines for illnesses such as diphtheria, rotavirus, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, also called pertussis, and others are given in the first year of life. If these diseases seem uncommon it's because vaccines are doing their job.

Still, you might wonder about the benefits and risks of childhood vaccines. Here are answers to some common questions about childhood vaccines.

Is natural immunity better than vaccination?

No. In general, it is better to prevent sickness by getting vaccinated rather than getting an infection.

Getting infected with a germ may provide some people with a longer lasting immune response but at higher risk. For example, getting a Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) bacterial infection could lead to permanent deafness, brain damage or even death.

Childhood vaccines protect kids from serious diseases and complications. Vaccines also lower the chance of spreading a disease.

Do vaccines cause autism?

No. Vaccines do not cause autism. Researchers haven't found a connection between autism and childhood vaccines. The original study that ignited the controversy in 1998 was removed from the scientific record, also called retracted, in 2010.

Are vaccine side effects dangerous?

Most vaccine side effects are not dangerous. Any medicine, including vaccines, can cause side effects. Most of the time, these side effects are minor. Some examples are a low-grade fever, headache, fussiness or soreness at the injection site.

Rarely, a child might experience a severe side effect, such as an allergic reaction or a seizure. These are rare side effects, and caregivers and health care providers monitor for them after vaccination.

Of course, vaccines aren't given to children who have known allergies to specific parts of the vaccine. And if your child has a life-threatening reaction to one vaccine, further doses of that vaccine won't be given.

The risk of a vaccine causing serious harm or death is very small. The benefits of getting a vaccine are much greater than the possible side effects for almost all children.

Why are vaccines given so early?

Most babies are born with developing immune systems. Vaccination makes sure a baby has as much protection from disease and disease complications as is safely possible. It also helps prevent babies and children from spreading illness to others.

Vaccines for children are timed carefully. Vaccines are given when protection inherited from the mother fades and the child's immune system is ready, but before kids come in contact with the germs that cause real infections.

Is it OK to pick and choose vaccines?

It's not a good idea to skip some vaccines. That leaves your child without protection. It allows a child to spread disease to others. For some children, such as kids being treated for cancer, their main protection from disease is the immunity of the people around them.

And because diseases are still spreading in many parts of the world, skipping vaccines puts your child at risk in the future.

If you are worried about a certain vaccine, talk about your concerns with your child's health care provider. If your child falls behind the standard vaccine schedule, ask your child's health care provider how to catch up.

Have more questions? Read the vaccine guidance from Mayo Clinic.

Mayo Clinic Minute: Why and when children should be vaccinated

Elizabeth Cozine, M.D.: Vaccination prevents a child from getting an illness. It also prevents them from spreading an illness.

Jason Howland: Dr. Elizabeth Cozine, a Mayo Clinic family physician, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a standard immunization schedule for school-age children that begins with ages 4 to 6.

Dr. Cozine:…which we think of as kindergarten shots. So that's measles, mumps, rubella and varicella.

Jason Howland: She says the next set of routine immunizations is at age 11…

Dr. Cozine:…which is tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, and the meningococcal immunization.

Jason Howland: It's also recommended every child get an annual flu shot. And HPV vaccination, which prevents cancer, can start as early as age 9. Dr. Cozine says it's important to educate families on the importance of childhood vaccinations. She likens it to seat belt safety.

Dr. Cozine: Immunizations are no different. If we have opportunities to protect our children against serious illness and potentially even death, even if the risk of that illness or the risk of death from that illness is really quite low, I'm all for it.

Jason Howland: For the Mayo Clinic News Network, I'm Jason Howland.

Children’s health information and parenting tips to your inbox.

Sign-up to get Mayo Clinic’s trusted health content sent to your email. Receive a bonus guide on ways to manage your child’s health just for subscribing. Click here for an email preview.

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

March 28, 2023 See more In-depth