Is the pneumonia vaccine right for you?

New controversies make prevention more important than ever

We think of this time of year as cold and flu season. But sadly, you have to fight more than these nasty viruses during the winter months. You also have to fend off public pressure to get ineffective and dangerous flu shots.

And if you’re an older adult, you’re probably getting the hard sell to have a pneumonia vaccine as well.

Should you? I used to say yes. But the picture has become cloudier recently.

First of all, there are questionable new CDC recommendations about the pneumonia vaccine. Then there are the vaccine’s serious side effects.

And last but certainly not least, there’s compelling evidence that the vaccine doesn’t actually prevent pneumonia.

Let’s take a closer look at what our vaccine-happy government doesn’t want you to know.

Don’t fall victim to vaccination propaganda

There’s no question that pneumonia is a serious—and even deadly— illness. Especially for older adults.

Pneumonia causes a whopping 1 million hospitalizations every year in the U.S.1 And a jaw-dropping 81 percent of the 55,000 yearly deaths from pneumonia or influenza occur in people over the age of 65.2

That’s why it’s tempting to believe the government propaganda and uninformed hype from so-called experts about the necessity for pneumonia vaccines.

But, to quote the Longfellow translation of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Unfortunately, this seems the be the case with many vaccines today. Too much is unknown, and there is no clear direction about how to proceed—despite the vaccination Kool-Aid the government wants to force you to drink.

Some vaccines are truly warranted, but with the crony-capitalist government’s relentless propaganda campaigns, and the unsavory practices that have been revealed around some vaccines, how we know when to trust the government about anything?

That’s why I recommend you talk with your primary care doctor and/or a specialist in infectious diseases about whether a pneumonia vaccine might be right for you.

And before you do, I suggest you educate yourself so you can ask the right questions—such as how pneumonia occurs, the issues surrounding the vaccine, key risk factors for pneumonia, and steps you can take to help prevent the illness naturally and safely.

Read on, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know about pneumonia and the vaccine…and how to keep your respiratory system healthy during the long, cold winter months.

How do you get pneumonia? 

Pneumonia is most commonly a complication resulting from a respiratory infection such as the flu. However, there are actually more than 30 different causes of pneumonia.

Pneumonia can affect anyone, at any age, at any time of year. But older adults, young children, people with compromised immune systems, and those with conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more at risk than others.

Pneumonia can vary from mild (so-called “walking pneumonia”) to very severe cases that can be life-threatening—depending upon the kind of infection, your age, and your overall health status. That’s why it’s important to be on the lookout for warning signs.

And those signs can depend on what type of pneumonia you have. The two most common are bacterial and viral pneumonia.

Symptoms of bacterial pneumonia 

Pneumococcus bacteria is the most frequent cause of community-acquired pneumonia—meaning the infection is spread from person to person.

With bacterial pneumonia, you can have a fever as high as 105 degrees. Why? Because bacteria signal the body to increase its temperature—which, in turn, slows down the rate of bacteria reproduction and multiplication. This gives the immune system a chance to catch up and overcome the infection by making more white blood cells.

Other symptoms of bacterial pneumonia include profuse sweating, rapid breathing and pulse rate, chest pain, severe congestion, shortness of breath, bluish discoloration of lips and nail beds, and confusion or delirium—particularly in older people.

Some doctors prescribe antibiotics for bacterial pneumonia. And certainly, if you have not recently had a cold or flu (due to a virus, for which antibiotics don’t work), but start experiencing the symptoms listed above, a two-to-three-day course of antibiotics can be life-saving.

But if your symptoms are milder, taking a drug just to lower a fever (like aspirin or ibuprofen—or acetaminophen, which you should never take anyway) may actually slow and interfere with the body’s natural ability to fight bacterial infections, like bacterial pneumonia.

No matter what, your own body must still overcome the infection with a healthy immune response. That’s why respiratory infections like pneumonia are so dangerous in people with compromised immune systems (such as HIV/AIDS).

Symptoms of viral pneumonia

When pneumonia is caused by a virus, symptoms are limited to breathlessness, cough, fever, headache, and muscle pain and weakness.

These symptoms are similar to flu symptoms, but flu is an upper respiratory infection, while pneumonia occurs in the lower respiratory tract.

So how can you tell the difference? Well, on your own, you can’t. So if you have the flu and symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, bloody or yellow-green mucus, severe congestion, and fever higher than 102 degrees that persists for more than three to five days, it is time to consult a physician, who can tell if you do have pneumonia.

Though keep in mind that when pneumonia is caused by a virus, no antibiotic will help. Nor can you really count on “antiviral” drugs like Tamiflu, as I’ve written about before. Serious viral pneumonia requires supportive care with bed rest, fluids, and electrolytes.

A vaccine won’t help either. Pneumonia vaccines are designed only to fight bacterial pneumonia. And, as I’ll tell you shortly, they’re not even very good at that.

Why the pneumonia vaccine is so complicated

The very first pneumonia vaccine was developed in 1911, but it failed due to manufacturing and purification issues.

These problems occurred mainly because the vaccine was designed to fight bacterial rather than viral pneumonia. Vaccines are well suited to prevent infections caused by simple viruses, but they become more complicated when dealing with bacteria, which are more complex microbes.

By 1940, 80 different serologic types of the bacteria that cause pneumococcal pneumonia in adults had been identified. Today, 90 different serologic types are known.

Serologic types identify different strains of the same bacteria, but they all can cause the same infections in the body. Each serologic type has specific antibodies that must be vaccinated against—meaning there would have to be 90 different antibodies in a pneumonia vaccine. And that’s difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish.

Dr. Robert Austrian, my former professor at the University of Pennsylvania and colleague at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, spent his career during the 1950s-80s working on an effective vaccine for pneumonia. By 1977, he had developed a vaccine covering the 14 serotypes that most commonly cause pneumococcal pneumonia in adults.

By 1983, a vaccine covering the 23 most common serotypes had been developed. This vaccine, which is still used today, addresses 88% of the pneumococcus bacterial strains that can be found in the blood.

(In children, there is a different vaccine and different guidelines. It is hoped that vaccinating children over age 2 will eventually produce immunity in the population as a whole…and reduce the number of community-acquired pneumonia infections. But that opens another can of worms regarding the overwhelming number of vaccines young children are already being exposed to today.)

But despite the promising numbers, giving the pneumonia vaccine to adults has also become controversial in recent years for a few important reasons.

4 major issues with the pneumonia vaccine

High risks for certain groups. The CDC recommends that all adults over age 65 get the pneumonia vaccine.3 It also targets high-risk adults with compromised immune systems (for example, people with HIV/AIDs, or cancer, or who are taking immunosuppressive drugs like corticosteroids). But this recommendation is controversial because the vaccines, and not just the infections, are also more dangerous in these cases.

One shot may not be enough. The CDC guidelines claim that once a person gets a pneumonia vaccination, he or she will never need another. But data shows that a single shot is most likely to produce antibodies in about 75% of adults, leaving the other 25% unprotected.4

But two may be too complex. Since June 2015, the CDC has been recommending that older adults receive two different types of pneumonia vaccines.

However, infectious disease experts cite a lack of evidence, along with increased costs and other factors, for the new, two-vaccine approach. Two experts wrote that the new recommendations are “…misguided, complex, and not ready for widespread adoption.”4

The vaccine doesn’t work. I saved the worst for last. A review of 22 studies involving more than 100,000 people revealed that the vaccine does not actually reduce the risk of getting pneumonia.5

The vaccine was ineffective in the higher-quality, double-blind trials.

The review also noted that some studies show the vaccine is only 60-70% effective in preventing pneumonia from spreading from the lungs into the blood or brain.

Only one old study, from the beginning of the current vaccine’s development, showed that the vaccine reduced the risk of dying from pneumonia.6

And don’t forget the long list of side effects

If you do get the pneumonia vaccine, there are many common side effects. Most serious is an acute allergic reaction, which requires immediate medical help. Symptoms include difficulty breathing; hives; or swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat. You should wait about 20 minutes in the doctor’s office after receiving a vaccine to make sure you don’t have a dangerous reaction.

Other serious side effects include high fever (103 degrees or more); easy bruising or bleeding; swollen glands; skin rash or itching; joint pain and general malaise; pale or yellowish skin tone; dark urine; confusion or weakness; numbness or tingling in the feet; severe lower back pain; changes in behavior; problems with vision, speech, swallowing, or bladder or bowel function; slow heart rate; breathing trouble; and lightheadedness. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of these side effects.

Less serious but likely to occur are low fever (102 degrees or less); chills; fatigue; headache; nausea; vomiting; and swelling, stiffness, soreness, or redness in the injection area.

But even if you somehow manage to avoid these side effects, it’s difficult to ignore the other serious problems with the pneumonia vaccine I outlined above. Which is why it’s imperative to discuss with your doctor or an infectious disease specialist if the pneumonia vaccine is right for you.

But no matter what, it should be clear that this vaccine is not a good way to actually prevent pneumonia. Your best way to stave off pneumonia is also the best way to thwart all respiratory infections—avoid the coughing crowds, boost your immune system and practice good personal hygiene.

4 big risk factors for pneumonia

There are a few things you should be aware of that can increase your risk of pneumonia.

Smoking (tobacco or marijuana). Your respiratory passages are lined with special cells that help repel invaders like bacteria and viruses. One way the cells accomplish this is through cilia, or little hairs, that constantly sweep contaminants away.

But heavy smokers can lose these hairs—which is a big reason why they can have trouble fighting off colds, flu…or pneumonia.

Heartburn drugs. A recent review of 26 studies found that people who treat heartburn and indigestion with proton-pump inhibitors—like Prilosec, Nexium, Prevacid, and others—have a 1.5-fold increased risk of acquiring pneumonia.7

The FDA is currently investigating this link.8 Of course, it may take 10 years for the FDA to decide—what with all its government holidays and punting the problem to some quasi-scientific “committee” for further study.

Allergy drugs. Another drug to pay attention to is Zyrtec, which is used to treat seasonal allergies. But it also has antihistamine effects that some people find useful for symptoms of cold or flu.

However, according to FDA statistics, 3% of people who took Zyrtec reported that they contracted pneumonia.9 It’s a small number, but it bears watching.

Tonsillectomy or adenoid removal. There’s a special type of tissue in your throat, known as Waldeyer’s Ring, that consists of two tonsils, two adenoids, and smaller collections of lymphoid white blood cell tissues. When you get a cold or fight off an infection, immune cells proliferate. That causes the tissues in Waldeyer’s Ring to swell so they can better fend off the invaders.

Unless, of course, this tissue has been surgically removed.

So if you have had your tonsils or adenoids taken out, it’s a good idea to watch out for pneumonia if you get the flu. And if you’re one of the lucky ones and still have your Waldeyer’s Ring intact…consider yourself the owner of a valued treasure!

Your natural pneumonia-prevention checklist 

Practice good hygiene. This includes washing your hands regularly with soap (not the dangerous antibacterial kind) and drying them with a paper towel or personal handkerchief—not a hand dryer. As I wrote in in the February 2015 Insiders’ Cures (“The shocking source spreading cold and flu viruses”), research shows these devices just blow bacteria and viruses throughout a restroom.

Boost your immune system. Take a daily high-quality B vitamin complex, 250 mg of vitamin C twice a day, and 10,000 IU per day of vitamin D. And, of course, eat plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

Fight colds and flu. Because pneumonia can often be a complication of an upper respiratory virus, follow these steps whenever you feel a cold or flu coming on:

  • Take 300-400 grams of echinacea, goldenseal, and/or elderberry daily. I prefer to take ALL of these herbal remedies in hot infusions (teas) together with honey, lemon, and flu-fighting ginger.
  • In addition, I recommend 50-60 mg of zinc twice a day
  • I also recommend 200 mcg of selenium daily (in organic form, such as selenomethionine).





4“Pneumococcal vaccine: Controversy over CDC recommendations.” Pharmacy Today. March 2016; Volume 22, Issue 3, Page 16.

5“Efficacy of pneumococcal vaccination in adults: a meta-analysis.” CMAJ. 2009 Jan 6; 180(1): 48–58.

6“Immunisation with a polyvalent pneumococcal vaccine. Reduction of adult respiratory mortality in a New Guinea Highlands community.” Lancet 1977;1:1338-41.

7“Risk of Community-Acquired Pneumonia with Outpatient Proton-Pump Inhibitor Therapy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” PLoS One. 2015 Jun 4;10(6):e0128004.