The BCG vaccine protects against tuberculosis, which is also known as TB.
TB is a serious infection that affects the lungs and sometimes other parts of the body, such as the bones, joints and kidneys. It can also cause meningitis.
Who should have the BCG vaccine and when
The BCG vaccine (which stands for Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine) is not given as part of the routine NHS vaccination schedule.
It's given on the NHS only when a child or adult is thought to have an increased risk of coming into contact with TB.
BCG for babies
BCG vaccination is recommended for babies up to 1 year old who:
- are born in areas of the UK where TB rates are higher than in the rest of the country, including some parts of inner London
- have a parent or grandparent who was born in a country where there's a high rate of TB
If the BCG vaccine is recommended for your baby, it’s usually offered soon after birth, while your baby is still in hospital.
Or your baby can be referred to a local healthcare centre for vaccination after they’ve left hospital.
This may not necessarily be the local GP surgery, as not all surgeries can provide this service.
BCG for children
BCG vaccination may also be recommended for older children who have an increased risk of developing TB, such as:
- children who have recently arrived from countries with high levels of TB, including those in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, parts of southeast Asia, parts of South and Central America, and parts of the Middle East
- children who have come into close contact with someone infected with respiratory TB
BCG for adults
BCG vaccination is rarely given to anyone over the age of 16 because it does not work very well in adults.
But it's given to adults aged 16 to 35 who are at risk of TB through their work, such as some healthcare workers.
If you're offered BCG vaccination as an adult, it will be arranged by a local healthcare centre.
How the BCG vaccination is given
BCG vaccination is given as an injection into the upper arm.
The vaccination usually leaves a small scar.
How well the BCG vaccine works
The BCG vaccine is made from a weakened strain of TB bacteria. Because the bacteria in the vaccine is weak, it triggers the immune system to protect against the infection.
This gives good immunity to people who receive it without causing the infection.
In 7 to 8 of every 10 people who have the vaccine, it's effective against the most severe forms of TB, such as TB meningitis in children.
It's less effective in preventing TB that affects the lungs, which is the more common type of TB in adults.
Side effects of the BCG vaccine
Reactions to the BCG vaccine are uncommon and generally mild.
The most common side effects include:
- soreness where the injection was given
- a high temperature
- swollen glands
Most children develop a sore at the injection site. Once healed, the sore may leave a small scar. This is normal and nothing to worry about.
Serious side effects from the BCG vaccine, such as a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), are very rare.
Page last reviewed: 26 April 2019
Next review due: 26 April 2022