Infections with influenza viruses and respiratory bacteria each contribute substantially to the global burden of morbidity and mortality. Simultaneous or sequential infection with these pathogens manifests in complex and difficult-to-treat disease processes that need extensive antimicrobial therapy and cause substantial excess mortality, particularly during annual influenza seasons and pandemics. At the host level, influenza viruses prime respiratory mucosal surfaces for excess bacterial acquisition and this supports increased carriage density and dissemination to the lower respiratory tract, while greatly constraining innate and adaptive antibacterial defences. Driven by virus-mediated structural modifications, aberrant immunological responses to sequential infection, and excessive immunopathological responses, co-infections are noted by short-term and long-term departures from immune homoeostasis, inhibition of appropriate pathogen recognition, loss of tolerance to tissue damage, and general increases in susceptibility to severe bacterial disease. At the population level, these effects translate into increased horizontal bacterial transmission and excess use of antimicrobial therapies. With increasing concerns about future possible influenza pandemics, the past decade has seen rapid advances in our understanding of these interactions. In this Review, we discuss the epidemiological and clinical importance of influenza and respiratory bacterial co-infections, including the foundational efforts that laid the groundwork for today's investigations, and detail the most important and current advances in our understanding of the structural and immunological mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of co-infection. We describe and interpret what is known in sequence, from transmission and phenotypic shifts in bacterial dynamics to the immunological, cellular, and molecular modifications that underlie these processes, and propose avenues of further research that might be most valuable for prevention and treatment strategies to best mitigate excess disease during future influenza pandemics.