Influenza A viruses that circulate normally in the human population cause a debilitating, though generally transient, illness that is sometimes fatal, particularly in the elderly. Severe complications arising from pandemic influenza or the highly pathogenic avian H5N1 viruses are often associated with rapid, massive inflammatory cell infiltration, acute respiratory distress, reactive hemophagocytosis and multiple organ involvement. Histological and pathological indicators strongly suggest a key role for an excessive host response in mediating at least some of this pathology. Here, we review the current literature on how various effector arms of the immune system can act deleteriously to initiate or exacerbate pathological damage in this viral pneumonia. Generally, the same immunological factors mediating tissue damage during the anti-influenza immune response are also critical for efficient elimination of virus, thereby posing a significant challenge in the design of harmless yet effective therapeutic strategies for tackling influenza virus.