Do Statins Fight Infection?

By Lori Wiviott Tishler, M.D.
Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

People take drugs called statins to lower their cholesterol levels. Now a large study shows that statins may help people recover from pneumonia. Danish researchers looked at 29,900 people who were in the hospital with pneumonia. People who were taking statins were one-third less likely to die from the disease. Statins may tweak the body's immune system. Or, people who take statins may be in better health to begin with. The study appears in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

High cholesterol is bad for heart health, right? Right. But this article adds to information suggesting that treatment for high cholesterol with a medicine called a statin can actually be good for your body.

A group of Danish physicians used their national hospital registry to look at 29,900 patients who were in the hospital for pneumonia. Of those people, about 5% of them were taking a statin. Compared with others in the study, current statin users had a lower risk of dying of pneumonia up to 3 months after their hospitalization. Their risk was one-third lower.

This relationship held even though people in the statin group were older, more likely to be diabetic, and more likely to have had a heart attack. The finding remained strong even for alcoholics and people of lower socioeconomic status. People in these groups are at higher risk for dying of pneumonia.

This study was strong. It was large. It had excellent data about hospitalizations and use of medicines. One cautionary note is the "healthy user" effect. This means that people who are healthy may be more likely to receive drugs like cholesterol-lowering medicines. Because they are generally healthy, they also are less likely to die of an infection such as pneumonia.

The authors suggest that statins modify the body's immune response. Our body's response to an infection is part of what makes us so sick. Statins may reduce the body's response by affecting a small family of proteins called G proteins. In bacterial infections, G proteins may reduce the inflammatory response. They also may reduce the amount of bacteria in a person's body, increasing the chances of recovery.

What Changes Can I Make Now?

Even as this body of evidence grows, I think we are a long way from treating people with statins during acute infectious or inflammatory diseases. If you have pneumonia, I would not recommend starting cholesterol-lowering medicine. If you're already on it, it may help you.

An adult pneumonia vaccine can prevent certain kinds of pneumonias. People who should get this vaccine are:

  • Adults over the age of 65 (one shot)

  • People with chronic illnesses such as HIV, asthma, heart disease, renal disease, and diabetes who are between 18 and 64 (these people may need booster shots every 6 to 10 years)

Also, consider getting the flu vaccine. This protects you from flu, but also from the pneumonias associated with it. Any adult can get a flu shot. People in the categories above should get a flu shot every year.

During cold and flu season, cover your mouth when you cough. It's best to use the crook of your elbow, rather than your hand. Wash your hands and the hands of small children frequently.

If you think you have pneumonia, see a doctor. Symptoms include a high fever, chills, cough with mucus, shortness of breath and fatigue. Some people can be safely cared for at home; others need to be in the hospital.

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

I think that we will start to see new approaches to treating infections. Most current treatments are aimed at the infectious agent. For example, antibiotics destroy the bacteria causing an infection. But as shown by this study, changing the patient's response to infection also can help. One day, we may see combinations of anti-infective drugs that treat the infection and the patient's immune system.

I expect that we will hear more about G proteins and their role in inflammation in the body. I also hope that we continue to see active medical and public health measures to prevent disease and keep people healthy, such as vaccines and improved hygiene policies.

Last Annual Review Date: 2008-10-28T00:00:00-06:00

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Kids who grow quickly as toddlers or teens tend to have lower cholesterol levels as adults, new research says. A 2007 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health also found that people who become overweight after age 15 are more likely to have higher cholesterol levels.