What is a Cytokine Storm and What is its Link to COVID?


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The world has been dealing with COVID-19 since the past one year and every day we come across different triggers or reactions that are making it worse. COVID-19 has been asymptomatic in a few patients while life threatening in others.It was found that in many COVID cases a severe immune reaction has been taking place that is worsening the disease and its prognosis. This reaction is called a cytokine storm.

What is a Cytokine Storm?

Cytokine storm is a severe immune reaction in which the body releases too many cytokines in the blood at a very fast rate. Cytokines have an important role in normal immune reactions of the body but their release in a large amount proves to be harmful. Cytokine storm normally occurs as a result of some autoimmune disease like juvenile arthritis or infection, it may also occur after treatments like immunotherapy. A cytokine storm which can also be referred to as hypercytokinemia can be life threatening and may lead to organ failure.

Signs and Symptoms of a Cytokine Storm

The common signs and symptoms that indicate the start of a cytokine storm in your body are-

  • Inflammation ( it starts with the usual signs of inflammation that are redness, swelling, heat, pain and loss of function ).
  • High fever
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

Cytokine Storm in COVID

As cytokines are released as a result of immune reactions, it is natural that they are released after any infection that affects the immune system.

  • In case of SARS-CoV-2 infection in COVID the virus multiplicates itself at a very fast rate. This gives the immune system signals that something foreign has entered the body and the immune response is fastened.
  • The increased immune response leads to higher and faster release of cytokines which in turn leads to a cytokine storm.
  • Studies show that one of the most dangerous conditions associated with cytokine storms is ARDS or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. This condition has also been seen to occur and lead to death in patients affected with SARS- CoV-2 or COVID 19.
  • ADRS leads to inflammatory damage to the alveolar-capillary membrane leading to lung insufficiency.
  • The cytokine levels were found to be raised in cases of COVID 19 especially in those experiencing severe symptoms.
  • This rise in cytokines only worsens the disease and is also an indication for the clinicians that the disease is worsening.
  • If the cytokine storm in COVID patients goes unnoticed or untreated it may lead to ADRS and eventually lead to organ failure.
  • Once lungs are attacked by this storm, oxygen level starts to drop in other organs of the body as well leading to organ failure.
  • Studies also show that it takes about a week after the diagnosis of COVID to the diagnosis of multiple organ failure.

Treating Cytokine Storm in COVID patients

As we have discussed above the cytokine storm causes an abnormal inflammatory reaction. Hence, to treat cytokine storms in COVID patients, anti-inflammatory therapies may come in handy. Experts have suggested that immunotherapies may be helpful in such cases and one such proposed therapy is ‘neutralising antibodies’ , which can only be achieved by incorporating the plasma of recovered patients. Cytokine storm has been seen as one of the deadliest complications of COVID-19 which leads to higher mortality rate in COVID patients. Thus, experts are trying to come up with more effective medications to treat the cytokine storm in COVID to reduce the mortality rate and improve the prognosis. They have come up with a strategy called ‘drug repurposing’ which helps to reduce the time by skipping steps in drug testing.