What to Do After You’ve Gotten the Smallpox Vaccine


The smallpox vaccine contains a live virus called vaccinia. After vaccination, this live virus is present at the vaccine site and can be spread to other parts of the body or to other individuals through contact. To avoid this, the vaccination site must be cared for carefully until the scab that forms after vaccination falls off on its own (in 2 to 3 weeks). Follow these instructions:

What You Should Do:

  • Cover the vaccination site loosely with a gauze bandage, using first aid adhesive tape to keep it in place. Keep it covered until the scab falls off on its own. This bandage will provide a barrier to protect against spread of the vaccinia virus. (When involved in direct patient care, healthcare workers should cover the gauze with a semipermeable (semiocclusive) dressing as an additional barrier. A semipermeable dressing is one that allows for the passage of air but does not allow for the passage of fluids.)
  • Wear a shirt that covers the vaccination site as an extra precaution to prevent spread of the vaccinia virus. This is particularly important in situations of close physical contact.
  • Change the bandage every 1 to 3 days. This will keep skin at the vaccination site from softening and wearing away.
  • Wash hands with soap and hot water or with alcohol-based hand rubs such as gels or foams after direct contact with the vaccination site, the bandage or clothes, towels or sheets that might be contaminated with virus from the vaccination site. This is vital in order to remove any virus from your hands and prevent contact spread.
  • Keep the vaccination site dry. Cover the vaccination site with a waterproof bandage when you bathe. Remember to change back to the loose gauze bandage after bathing.
  • Put the contaminated bandages in a sealed plastic bag and throw them away in the trash.
  • Keep a separate laundry hamper for clothing, towels, bedding or other items that may have come in direct contact with the vaccine site or drainage from the site.
  • Wash clothing or other any material that comes in contact with the vaccination site, using hot water with detergent and/or bleach. Wash hands afterwards.
  • When the scab falls off, throw it away in a sealed plastic bag (remember to wash your hands afterwards).

Do Not:

  • Don’t use a bandage that blocks all air from the vaccination site. This may cause the skin at the vaccination site to soften and wear away. Use loose gauze secured with medical tape to cover the site.
  • Don’t put salves or ointments on the vaccination site.
  • Don’t scratch or pick at the scab.

For more about vaccination, see Smallpox Vaccine.

Page last reviewed: February 21, 2006