Concern that a highly pathogenic virus might cause the next influenza pandemic has spurred recent research into influenza and its complications. Bacterial superinfection in the lungs of people suffering from influenza is a key element that promotes severe disease and mortality. This co-pathogenesis is characterized by complex interactions between co-infecting pathogens and the host, leading to the disruption of physical barriers, dysregulation of immune responses and delays in a return to homeostasis. The net effect of this cascade can be the outgrowth of the pathogens, immune-mediated pathology and increased morbidity. In this Review, advances in our understanding of the underlying mechanisms are discussed, and the key questions that will drive the field forwards are articulated.