The truth behind that weird scar on your upper left arm Be proud. Having a smallpox vaccine scar is like walking around with the moon landing and the Sistine Chapel on your upper arm.

In the book Outlander, Claire, a British woman from the 1940s, finds herself in Scotland of the 18th century, recognizes fellow time traveler Geillis Duncan by the smallpox vaccination scar on the other woman’s shoulder.

I must admit I would have been just as easily recognizable because I happen to have just such a scar. It’s not for smallpox (which was considered effectively eradicated already way back in 1952), but tuberculosis. I was vaccinated as an infant and then again at school. Everyone was. A school nurse came by every now and then and did the yearly check-ups and vaccinations. For tuberculosis, they did some kind of test on the inside of the elbow and if someone had a reaction, they were vaccinated.

After the vaccine, many kids had pain in their shoulders and arms (and I remember the shot as being rather painful) and you were not supposed to hit someone who was just vaccinated. Not that you were supposed to hit at all, but “Hey, not my vaccination scar!” was a cult saying of these times.

My father recently told me that he is a little bit sad that vaccines don’t leave scars these days. Back in his days, the smallpox vaccine was given to people in the form of an injection on the upper arm, preferably left. After the injection, children would get a swelling bulge pouring out yucky stuff for 2-3 days. The swelling wore off, and then after 2-4 weeks emerges again. This time it turns into a water bubble and oozes liquid. Then it finally dries up and starts healing. The process leaves a scar (see image above) which lasts you for your entire life.

But I would have disagreed with his sentiment. I have three little scars on my left shoulder. They’re not big and you can barely see them. I still wasn’t comfortable wearing tank tops or anything showing off my shoulders, and if I had a choice between a vaccine that didn’t leave a scar and one that did, I’d choose the former.

These days, having a vaccination scar is the exception rather than the rule. I have spoken to friends from all over the world and they rarely have a scar if they were born in First World Countries and they’re around my age. I wasn’t even aware of it because I’ve always had one and so considered it normal. As it turns out, it wasn’t.

All this didn’t help me feel any less conscious about my own vaccine scars. I was glad that my children wouldn’t have them, because all of them got their jabs in their tights, and the tuberculosis vaccine is no longer repeated. I am also very relieved because the vaccinations my kids get are so much better and safer for them than the one I received, even if children these days get the shots against 6 or more diseases in one go.

Be proud of your vaccine scar

But something about recent happenings made me change my mind about my scars. In January this year, there was a measles outbreak at Disneyland which resulted in 102 sick people, many of them kids, and all thanks to one unvaccinated woman. Unfortunately to us all, anti-vaxers are doing a rather good job of spreading their information all over the Internet (I am even tempted to compare that to spreading of vaccine preventable diseases).

I had never heard of people not vaccinating because it was so rare. Now I personally know people who don’t think that vaccination rescues lives or at least who are unsure of the efficacy of vaccines. Someone in an FB group I belong to even suggested making a subgroup for parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids, so I decided that I need to say something. I need to take a stand – and I only have to look at my left shoulder to understand what it is.

I am shocked that there are people who don’t vaccinate their kids because they believe in some crazy conspiracy theories, or don’t understand the science behind immunizations. It is sad to see that after we as much as eradicated small pox and many other diseases, some of them, like measles are coming back, due to parents’ lack of information or some absolutely irrational fears that are not at all based in reality and thus completely unfounded.

So while I still don’t consider my vaccination scars beautiful or gorgeous or pretty, I now begin to appreciate them and all the things that they stand for. I’m grateful for the fact that I’m still alive and haven’t died of any of the illnesses we vaccinate against. And most importantly, I'm thankful for the almost complete eradication of the diseases the vaccines target.

Now I look at my vaccination scars and don’t think they’re ugly or useless.

Instead, I decided to see it as a reminder. That my duty as a parent and member of society is to get my kids vaccinated so that they wouldn’t be sick themselves but also so that they would protect other children, whose immune systems don’t work the way they should.

My kids will not have the scar on their shoulder and I am glad. But I will tell them why we’re all going to the doctor to be immunized, even if it hurts and they feel cranky afterwards sometimes. Because a little crankiness is a much better than the alternative.

There is a reason why the immunization schedule is the way it is.

Vaccinations are one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and I’m glad I have a scar to remember this. Having a smallpox vaccine scar is like walking around with the moon landing and the Sistine Chapel on your upper arm.

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9 thoughts on “<span class="entry-title-primary">The truth behind that weird scar on your upper left arm</span> <span class="entry-subtitle">Be proud. Having a smallpox vaccine scar is like walking around with the moon landing and the Sistine Chapel on your upper arm.</span>”

  1. My recollection as a 76 yr old, English born Australian: I was given this vacc’ as a very young child in post WWII London and have a huge scar to this day on my outer, left arm. Comments my whole life long. My sis’, 2 years younger, had hers on the inner side of the arm: it was still big, and there today, but not visibly disfiguring. So they were becoming aware of this effect. Covid-19 is not the first experimental vaccination.

    Secondly, it was not an injection as such later on: a drop of the vacc’ liquid was placed wherever and the back of a needle, or some such implement, was used to scarify slightly the skin. There still resulted a scar but not the suppurating sore of yore. I recall such a vaccination technique being administered to toddlers in an Asian embassy clinic in the 1970s. How prevalent smallpox was at that time I can’t say. There often seems ‘an abundance of caution’.

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  2. I have two kids. One was born in 1980 and the other one was born in 1990. Neither one of them had the vax that leaves that scar. I was born in 1960 and my husband was born in 1966, and both of us have the scar.

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  3. As an adult born in 1962 with a scar on my left upper left arm - not once have I wondered where it came from or why I had one! I also have not forgotten the days before the shot was administered - my mother and her sister took the time to sit us -myself age 8, my sister and a cousin age 6, as well as a cousin with Downs Syndrome age 5 sitting us down with pictures of exactly what small pox looked like when someone became infected with it! This was 1968 Google was not an option! My mother and her sister made it their business to find out what they needed to know in order to explain why we were going to receive that vaccination! They DID NOT let anyone else relay that information to us at school or anywhere else children are! WE WERE INFORMED AND THAT INFORMATION CAME FROM PEOPLE WE TRUSTED MOST! Our mommas!!
    I rarely find myself wanting to reply to comments! Most of the time - like this time - I run across something totally off the subject as far as my reason for being online in the first place! I woke up with a tiny critter - not a flea or bed bug - crawling across my forehead! Tiny long black creature that did not jump! Sneaky looking little thing just tip toed across my forehead trying to avoid the lines - knowing if he lost his footing he’d be gone into the abyss! I’m 59!
    I just felt compelled to comment!!!! My sweet husband is a Pharmacist and has been for 30+ years. He deals with “misinformation” daily! He has such a sweet soul! I’d have already lost my job and serving time for felony assault! Lol! People throw out information without research without giving it a second thought! Not so much in this case but THAT CAN SERIOUSLY ALTER SOMEONES LIFE in a negative way! We need facts! Think before you comment!

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  4. Totally agree! I’m proud of the scars on my arm (I have a few – I think it’s BCG which is the biggest scar, which my children also now have) – and like you I was gob-smacked when I first heard people questioning the need to vaccinate. Having lived in countries where vaccinations really can be the difference between life or death, I always have to walk away from those discussions.

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  5. Thank you so much for writing about this. Vaccinations are so important and we are fortunate not to have -and die from- the diseases that were around in the 50’s and 60’s (and some are still just a plane ride away) I’m old enough to have the smallpox vaccination scar on my upper left arm and don’t mind it at all. I would gladly go and get vaccinated again if necessary. I also remember getting the ‘new’ polio vaccine on the sugar cubes at school. Parents, please vaccinate your children – and yourself!

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  6. one of my closest friends is from india and she said that until 5 years of age, they will stop you at traffic stops and make sure that your children have their polio medicine. she said that they put a mark on your hand that is relatively permanent that shows you already received the medicine. my friend said that they have seen too many people with polio and she just doesn’t understand why people don’t want to vaccinate their children around the world.

    her daughter, however, was very happy when she turned 6—because she did say that the medicine is just disgusting and you only have to take it until 5 years of age 🙂

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