How Do Vaccines Work?

By: Women's Care Staff

If you read our last post on adult immunization, you know the importance of keeping your vaccinations up-to-date. The key to staying healthy involves several factors. Furthermore, vaccinations have an important part of a smart wellness plan. However, how do vaccines work exactly? Many of us know that we should receive vaccinations, but don’t know the basics of vaccines. In addition, do you know if you’re up to date on all the recommended vaccinations? What about when should they be administered? We’ll take a closer look at these important questions. First, here’s a quick overview of how vaccines work.

How vaccines work


The Oxford dictionary defines immunity as “The ability of an organism to resist a particular infection or toxin by the action of specific antibodies or sensitized white blood cells.” Where do antibodies come from? Your body produces antibodies when it detects a foreign germ. Once formed, these antibodies fight the disease germ. As a result, you get better. After your body wins the fight, you then develop immunity. Antibodies contribute to immunity because they also keep you from getting sick if the same germ is introduced again.

However, antibodies cannot prevent you from getting sick when the foreign germ is first introduced. Vaccines give you antibodies that recognize the germ before you develop the sickness.

Vaccines and antibodies together

We develop vaccines from dead germs of a disease or virus. Once introduced into the body, your immune system reacts as it would to the live germ and creates antibodies. However, your body doesn’t fight the germ because it’s already dead. This is why you don’t get sick. These antibodies then remain in your system for an extended period of time, fighting the live disease germ as soon as it’s introduced to your body. In other words, it gives your immune system a head start, or advantage, in immediately resisting the germ.

Why you still might get sick

You might still be wondering, “How do vaccines work if I received a vaccine and still got sick?”

Many avoid vaccines because they think they don’t work due to contracting a sickness anyway. Two possible reasons contribute to getting sick after receiving a vaccine. First, you might already have contracted the sickness but didn’t show symptoms. Second, many viruses such as the flu and the common cold rapidly mutate. We have yearly vaccinations for the flu because it mutates into different strains. Sometimes you receive the wrong strain for the flu and get it anyway. With the common cold, it mutates so rapidly that developing a vaccination would be useless.

Staying up-to-date on vaccinations

Certain vaccines last for varying periods of time. Therefore, you should stay up-to-date on your vaccinations to help your immune system. However, how do you know how long a vaccination lasts and which ones you need? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer a thorough and easy-to-read chart of the recommended adult immunizations.

Grouped by age, this chart identifies what vaccinations “are recommended” and which ones “may be recommended.” It also notes when, and if, a booster is needed. Additionally, the chart provides recommendations by health condition, making clear which groups should not receive particular vaccines. It is updated annually by the CDC to ensure the most current information is reflected.

chart that describes how vaccines work with when you should get certain vaccinations

For example, unless your healthcare provider says otherwise, all adults ages 19 – 65+ should receive annual influenza (flu) vaccinations. However, the shingles vaccine is only recommended for adults 60 and over, but that includes anyone who may have already had shingles. And the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is recommended for adults ages 19 – 59, only if they did not get it as a child. Recommendations are laid out clearly in the chart for these and a number of other diseases, too.

You can also find additional information, like immunization recommendations for travelers, as well as some useful tools on the CDC’s website. The Adult Vaccination Quiz asks a series of simple age, health, and lifestyle questions to provide you with a list of vaccinations that you may possibly need; you can then print this list and bring it with you to your next physician’s appointment.

Remember, you never outgrow the need for vaccines, so it is important that you keep track of your vaccination records. Be sure to share your immunity history with your Women’s Care OB/GYN to ensure you stay on schedule and stay healthy!

For more detailed information on each of the adult vaccinations, we encourage you to visit the immunization page on our website. To find a Women’s Care OB/GYN near you.

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