Benefits and risks of vaccination

All medicines have side effects. However, vaccines are among the safest and the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the risk of side effects. When you’re considering a vaccination for yourself or your child, it’s natural to focus on the potential side effects. But a better approach is to try to balance the benefits of having a vaccine against the chances of harm.

What are the side effects of vaccination?

Most side effects from vaccination are mild and short-lived. Common side effects include:

  • It’s quite common to have redness or swelling around the injection site, but this soon goes away.
  • Younger children or babies may be a bit irritable or unwell, or have a slight temperature. Again, this usually goes away within one or two days. You may want to keep them off nursery.
  • In much rarer cases, some people have an allergic reaction soon after a vaccination. This is usually a rash or itching that affects part or all of the body. The GPs and nurses who give the vaccine are trained in how to treat this.
  • On very rare occasions, a severe allergic reaction may happen within a few minutes of the vaccination. This is called an anaphylactic reaction. It can lead to breathing difficulties and, in some cases, collapse. Remember that anaphylactic reactions are extremely rare (less than one in a million). Vaccination staff are trained to deal with this, and these reactions are completely reversible if treated promptly.

The benefits of vaccination:

Vaccination is different from giving medicine to an unwell child to make them better. The benefits of vaccination are invisible. The idea is that your child won’t become ill with measles or end up in intensive care with meningitis. It may be tempting to say “no” to vaccination and “leave it to nature”. However, deciding not to vaccinate your child puts them at risk of catching a range of potentially serious, even fatal, diseases. In reality, having a vaccination is much safer than not having one. They’re not 100% effective in every child, but they’re the best defence against the epidemics that used to kill or permanently disable millions of children and adults.

Childhood vaccines timeline

6-in-one vaccine
Protects against: diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) and hepatitis B.
Given at: 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age to all babies born on or after 1 August 2017.

Pneumococcal or pneumo jab (PCV)
Protects against: some types of pneumococcal infection
Given at: 8 weeks, 16 weeks and one year of age

Rotavirus vaccine
Protects against: rotavirus infection, a common cause of childhood diarrhoea and sickness
Given at: 8 and 12 weeks of age

Men B vaccine
Protects against: meningitis (caused by meningococcal type B bacteria)
Given at: 8 weeks, 16 weeks and one year of age

Hib/Men C vaccine
Protects against: Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and meningitis caused by meningococcal group C bacteria
Given at: one year of age

MMR vaccine
Protects against: measles, mumps and rubella
Given at: one year and at three years and four months of age

Children’s flu vaccine
Protects against: flu
Given at: annually as a nasal spray in Sept/Oct for all children aged two to eight years on 31 August 2017

4-in-1 pre-school booster
Protects against: diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio
Given at: three years and four months of age

Optional vaccinations
These vaccinations are offered on the NHS in addition to the routine programme to “at-risk” groups of babies and children.

Chickenpox vaccination
Protects against: chickenpox
Who needs it: siblings of children who have suppressed immune systems and are susceptible to chickenpox, for example because they’re having cancer treatment or have had an organ transplant.
Given: from one year of age upwards. Children receive two doses of chickenpox vaccine given four to eight weeks apart.

BCG (tuberculosis) vaccination
Protects against: tuberculosis (TB)
Who needs it: babies and children who have a high chance of coming into contact with tuberculosis.
Given: from birth to 16 years of age.

Flu vaccination
Protects against: flu
Who needs it: children aged six months to two years and those aged nine to 17 who have certain medical conditions or a weakened immune system, which may put them at risk of complications from flu. (All children aged two to eight years are given the flu vaccine as part of the routine immunisation schedule.)
Given: for children between the ages of six months and two years as a single jab every year in September/November. For children aged nine to 17 years of age as a nasal spray every year in September/November.

Hepatitis B vaccination
Protects against: hepatitis B
Who needs it: children at high risk of exposure to hepatitis B, and babies born to infected mothers.
Given: as six doses over 12 months – a baby born to a mother infected with hepatitis B will be given a dose at birth, followed by further doses at 4, 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age, and a final dose at one year old.