The Flu and Bacterial Infections


As this winter continues to drag on (and on and on…), little colds and minor illnesses easily pop up.  It might seem like just an annoyance at first, but sometimes those minor illnesses may turn out to be influenza, especially this time of year.  Professor Betsy Foxman spoke last week regarding her research into influenza, particularly its relationship with Streptococcus pneumoniae.  While influenza itself may not often have serious consequences, the increased susceptibility of an individual as a result of an influenza infection increases the risk of dangerous invading bacteria like S. pneumoniae. It’s these bacterial infections that often have serious consequences such as pneumonia, and in extreme cases, death.

Dr. Foxman’s research specifically looked at how having influenza can impact your potential of picking up a secondary bacterial illness.  Interestingly, having influenza increases your susceptibility of becoming infected by S. pneumoniae by nearly 100 times!  The timing of being exposed to S. pneumoniae also plays a huge role in contracting invasive disease: in mouse models, being exposed to pneumococcal disease 5 days after influenza infection caused the greatest risk of invasive disease.  While not discussed in this talk, I would also be very interested to know if respiratory infections in general increase susceptibility to secondary bacterial infections in a similar manner. Feel free to comment if you have studied this topic!

So what’s the take home public health message? First, getting your flu shot is a great way to prevent influenza infection in the first place.  And if you do succumb to a dreary winter cold, be extra careful to avoid lots of potential exposures!

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