Cicatrices (Scars)


I love scars because behind each scar there is often a story that when told, reveals something about the bearer of that scar; for that reason, Carlos’s scars were one of the things I asked him about early in our relationship when we were still getting to know each other. The differences in our scar stories and the number of scars we each had was pretty representative of the different lives we had led up to that point.

Scars on Carlos’ shin and thigh, the result of a careless delivery man dropping a crate of beer bottles onto him as he slept in a hammock in his mother’s liquor store. The scars on my knees? From the time I checked out too many library books and crashed my bicycle trying to ride home with them in my arms. The scar on his forehead is from the time his brother threw a rock at his face. Thin, lightly raised scars mark the outside of my wrists from the time I tried to hug my grandmother’s short-tempered cat, Charlie.

There is one scar on Carlos’s upper left arm; a roundish mark, pinker than the surrounding skin, and about the size of a small coin.

“What’s that one?” I asked, expecting him to say someone had burned him with a lit cigar because of its appearance.

“From a vaccination. Everyone has them,” he said.

In Carlos’s experience, everyone did have them, but that wasn’t the case in my experience. I don’t have one, my sisters don’t have one and none of my friends growing up had such a scar.

For years I just accepted that Salvadorans, (and many Latin Americans I met), have such a scar, without knowing why. Recently I did some research to satisfy my curiosity about which vaccination caused the mark and why I don’t have one.

Various sources, (websites as well as anecdotal stories from friends) have narrowed it down to various possibilities. Some say they’re certain which vaccination it was, others say they have no idea, and still others think it was a combination of shots they received. The vaccinations most frequently blamed for the scar include tuberculosis (also known as “TB”), polio, and smallpox.

The countries of the people I spoke with who have the scar include:
El Salvador, Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Argentina, Japan, and The Dominican Republic.

Interestingly enough though, there were also a handful of people born in the United States who have the scar, but all of them were born before my birth year (1979), so it seems to me it’s a vaccine that wasn’t given after a certain year in the U.S. My mother says that both she and my father received the smallpox vaccine but that neither of them scarred and that they had stopped giving that by the time my sisters and I were born.

I managed to dig up my vaccination record and it says that when I was 3 months old I was vaccinated against polio, so, being that I don’t have a scar, perhaps we’ve narrowed it down to “TB” and/or smallpox – or it’s possible that like my parents, my skin doesn’t scar when it comes to vaccinations. A friend from Mexico further convinced me to eliminate polio as a possible source of the scar when she told me that the vaccination for polio, at least in her experience, is not a shot, but given orally along with sugar water. Obviously an oral vaccination wouldn’t cause a scar on the arm.

This website, Descubre Aprende (hat tip to my friend, Eliana!) says that these scars are caused by the TB vaccination which is called “BBG” – One of my Salvadoran friends stated that he was 100% certain that this was correct.

What do you think? Do you have a vaccination scar either on your upper arm or upper outer thigh? Do you know what it was from, in which country you received it and what year? Leave a comment!


  1. My parents both have these scars (both in their 50’s and from Pennsylvania), I’m pretty sure that it’s from a smallpox vaccine. They stopped doing smallpox vaccinations for most people in the US in the early 70’s, so I never got it. My husband is also Salvadoran, 30, and doesn’t have a scar, so they may have stopped vaccinating against it in El Salvador by the early 80s.

  2. I have a scar on my upper arm, probably from vaccines required to get me into kindergarten. I begun school at 5 years old in 1993 and I’m from the US, but I was born in Germany (army brat). Sometimes I wonder if I received more vaccines than others since I came here from another country, although I’m still “American” nonetheless.

  3. The scar I have is from the smallpox vaccination that was required to enter school. Years later, they stopped giving the vaccination because it wasn’t such a threat anymore. I am not sure what year they stopped giving them, but the vaccination caused the skin to get inflamed, the scab raised up and was very tender. If you bumped off the scab, it scabbed again and made a much bigger scar. Mine is on my upper left arm also.

  4. My mom who is Mexican has this famous scar I always wondered about. Now, living in France, my three older children have the BCG scar. They have been vaccinated against TB. It is now optional and I opted out for my youngest son Rémy. He will not have the infamous scar. Incidentally, I was born in 1973 in California and have no scar.

  5. TB. My little ones born in Guatemala had the vaccine (they are now 3 &4). I was on the fence about it, being born in the U.S., but felt the scar was worth the little bit of protection when they were tiny.

  6. You are correct Tracy. The scar is from the small pox vaccine. The United States stopped giving the smallpox vaccine in 1972. In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that all countries stop vaccinating for smallpox.

  7. In the Dominican Republic, everyone has it. My family swears it’s the TB vaccine. There’s even a family story that a cousin would not scar and the doctors kept giving her the vaccine (because apparently the scarring meant that the vaccine was working or something crazy like that)!

  8. This is an interesting subject. Something I remember discussing too with my husband. He explained to me back in the day, that this was from the vaccination. I had thought a gun shot wound. Just because it was a thick rounded scar. My husband too from el Salvador born in 1975. Thank you for sharing. :)

  9. My boyfriend was born in 1991 in Mexico and he has the scar from a vaccination and says that everyone in Mexico has one. Interesting that you just posted about it, because I was wondering about it lately.

  10. I am 32 years old and born Brownsville , TX in 1979. It’s funny because I even remember when I got at 5 years old. I saw kid’s in waiting line at a clinic or something like it. A kid came out crying and I thought at the time he must be weak. I’ll show them. So I sort of flexed my bony arm and HOLY MOLY…. that hurt… and yeah I couldn’t contain myself in front of everyone and cried… That is how I remember… because I cried in public. I m investigating this since it was braught up at work. in 1979 they were still doing these I guess in some places.

    • LOL, Thanks for sharing this personal story, Jesus. I hope you find the information you’re looking for!

  11. I am South African and we all got a hole bunch of vaccinations one year during primary school (Think I was 8-9 years old around 1986) I don’t know what we got, but some people had the scars, some don’t. Most my friends had them, my sister and I did not get them. Weird. Maybe it depends what you are susceptible to?

  12. I also have the round indented scar (about the size of a dime) on my upper left arm from the smallpox vaccination given before I entered school. My records show i also got a smallpox booster vaccination seven years later but no scar from that one. They stopped the routine smallpox vaccination in the US in 1972. Only certain military and medical personnel receive them now. The BCG (Bacille Calmette-Guerin) vaccine is given in many European countries and Mexico to prevent tuberculosis. (The BCG vaccine was never a routine vaccination in the US) The smallpox and the bcg vaccination scars are similar but the smallpox vaccination scars tend to be larger. Many countries still use the BCG vaccine so most anyone born after the early 70’s that has a vaccination scar would have gotten it from the BCG vaccine. As a general rule, the smallpox vaccination was given on the non dominant arm so most people would have it on their upper left arm. Some doctors would administer the vaccination on a girls/womans leg or thigh for vanity reasons. For many years, the smallpox vaccination was given by using a lancet to make a cut on the arm and then placing a drop of vaccine in the cut. The vaccine would react and form a blister. When the scab on the blister came off, the scar was left. In 1961, the “bifurcated” needle was developed to administer the vaccine. The doctor/nurse would dip the needle into the vaccine and a drop of vaccine would attach to the end of the needle. Then they would poke a spot on your upper arm several times enough to scratch the skin so the vaccine could seep into the cut. If the vaccination was successful, a blister would form in about 3-5 days. The blister would remain for about two-three weeks at which time the scab would fall off leaving an almost perfect circular scar. Before 1972, it wasn’t uncommon for the school nurse to check your arm to make sure you had received your smallpox vaccination – or if you traveled overseas, smallpox vaccination was required and Customs would check to see if you had been vaccinated. The BCG vaccine is administered a bit different – either by the multiple puncture method or by injection – a small amount of vaccine is administered just under the skin on the upper arm, enough to cause a small bump. Over the period of several months, the bump goes away and a scar is left. Often, a person will receive several BCG vaccinations over a period of years and a scar will form after each vaccination.

  13. I was born in Peru in the 90’s and have it. The BCG shot is given in countries with a high frequency of tuberculosis. It’s almost universal in Latin America and common in several countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, although the vaccine is starting to not be required in many of those places. It’s usually given on the dominant upper arm, whereas the smallpox vaccine in the US was given in the non-dominant arm.

  14. My husband has it he was born in 1995 in Dominican Republic. He said everyone that was born before 2000 in his country has it. He said from a shot but he didn’t know which one. It is an interesting subject seeing as how in America I don’t have one.

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