Defining Super Infections

By Dr. Leigh Vinocur, Emergency Physician and a Dr. Oz Expert.

Posted on | By Leigh Vinocur, MD, FACEP

Super infections are secondary bacteria-caused infections that usually develop while your body is fighting off a virus such as a cold or the flu. Generally, the bacteria that commonly cause super infections are in or are on our body already. However, it is while we are fighting off a virus that they then have the opportunity to invade our lungs or sinuses and cause a super infection.

Research has found that the cold or flu actually increases your susceptibility to bacterial infections, such as Streptococcus pneumonia, Haemophilus influenza, and Group A streptococcus, and Staphylococcus. In animals studies it was found that disruption of the lining of the respiratory tract was a major factor. Other animal studies found that viral response to an infection can release chemicals that may interfere with the cells that kill bacterial. Combine this with weakened mucous membranes lining the lungs and you have the perfect set up for a bacterial super infection.

How a Super Infection Develops
Typically, someone develops a cold or flu. They might be sick for a week or more, but just as they start feeling better, their fever suddenly spikes and their symptoms worsen.  Bacterial sinusitis is probably one of the more common super infections. It develops after the common cold (also called rhinitis.) A cold begins with sniffles, a runny nose accompanied by  a clear nasal discharge, and no fever. If after a week or two you start to develop a fever, severe headache, and/or you notice the discharge from your nose is thicker and greenish-yellow, it is likely you have developed a superimposed case of bacterial sinusitis.

The most dangerous and lethal super infections are secondary pneumonias that typically develop after the flu. In fact this is what leads to the 500,000 deaths worldwide from influenza. Like bacterial sinusitis, secondary pneumonia develops after you are recovering from the flu. Suddenly you get very sick with high fever, chills, shortness of breath, wheezing and trouble breathing.  If this happens to you or a family member, you must get in to see your doctor or go directly to the emergency department right away. If you have any signs or respiratory distress such as severe trouble breathing with bluish tinge to your lips or nail beds, call 911 immediately.

Those at highest risk for a super infection are people with respiratory problems, such as asthma, COPD, emphysema, smokers and those with compromised immune systems, like diabetics, pregnant women, kidney dialysis patients even obese individuals. But as we saw during the last pandemic of H1N,1anyone can develop a super infection from flu.

Preventing Super Infections

Prevention of viral infections such as the cold or the flu is key! One of the best ways you can protect yourself is mastering a good hand washing technique. Also, don’t touch your face, eyes, nose or mouth during the cold and flu season without washing your hands well. That is how the viruses are transmitted. Cover your sneezes and coughs with the inside crook of your elbow if you don’t have a tissue to use. And throw out used tissues immediately.

Another important way to prevent the flu and any complications that can develop from it, such as pneumonia, is to get vaccinated. The CDC now recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot. And this year the H1N1 is included in the regular flu vaccine. There is also a vaccine for pneumonias caused by the Streptococcus  pneumonia bacteria. There are 2 types of vaccines, and depending on the type, the CDC recommends it for infants under 2 years of age as well as all adults over 65 years of age. If you are ages 2-64 and you have a chronic medical condition or are immune compromised, the recommendation is also to get vaccinated.  So talk to your doctor. In this case the saying certainly is true: an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure.

Article written by Leigh Vinocur, MD, FACEP
Board-certified Emergency Physician, Adjunct Assistant Professor LSU Health-Shreveport