Last Updated on
Back on March 17, a 40-something man was admitted to a Paris hospital with lung opacities, a cough, and a strong fever; all in all, trademarks of the new coronavirus. A couple of days later, the man’s condition would become a lot worse, with plummeting oxygen levels. The doctors immediately suspected what turned out to be true – the patient’s body was in the midst of a cytokine storm. This is a phenomenon that happens when someone’s immune system overreacts to the virus – and it is as equally dangerous as the virus itself. We’ll explore the latest findings of it in detail below!
The Immune System Going Overboard
Once your body first detects a bacterium or a virus, it will send signals to the immune system. It will, in turn, start fighting the unwanted invader. And in this battle for the patient’s health, the foot soldiers are molecules dubbed “cytokines”; their purpose is to send signals to the body’s cells on how to fight the disease.
As logic would dictate, the stronger the response of your immune system is, the better are your chances of successfully fending off the infection – in this case, COVID-19. Because of this, there are plenty of immunity-boosting supplements and complementary agents designed to boost one’s immune system functions. They are being patented, evaluated, and rated and we can really rely on quality ones and not think that much about the whole mechanism. Simply, stronger immune systems are just one of the reasons why young people and children are far less vulnerable to the infection. And once this intruder is expelled, your immune system is supposed to shut down. In most cases, this is precisely what happens.
However – in about 15% of cases where patients are dealing with a serious infection, the immune system keeps working in overdrive long after the infection in question has been dealt with. It keeps chugging out the above mentioned cytokines, and these keep one’s body in complete high alert. So, in a badly executed attempt to keep your body safe, the cytokines end up attacking a lot of important organs, including your liver and lungs; with potentially fatal results. In other words – in this scenario, your own immune system is what kills you, instead of the coronavirus.
Cytokine Storms And Pandemics
People of all ages can be overtaken by cytokine storms. According to scientists, this is one of the most probable causes of young healthy people becoming deadly ill; especially during pandemics like H1N1, MERS, SARS, the one in 1918 and the one currently enraging the globe.
Reports from both Italy and China talk about young patients that have otherwise clean bills of healths suddenly succumbing to COVID-19 and ending up on ventilators. In many cases, it’s more than likely that these patients suffered from a cytokine storm more than corona.
Remember the 42-year-old Parisian we’ve talked about in the beginning? The good news is, he is one of the cases that may point to a light at the end of the tunnel. In the above mentioned case, the doctors opted for trying tocilizumab on the patient; a drug that’s used, from time to time, to soothe a patient’s distressed immune system.
The man received two doses of this drug, with eight hours in between. After just one day, his fever practically went away, his lungs began clearing up, and his oxygen levels started rising back to normal levels. Dozens of unrelated accounts from China and Italy all point towards the same thing – in some people, tocilizumab could be a good antidote to the cytokine issue with the coronavirus.
Before the French case, China already approved the use of this drug on the most serious coronavirus cases and authorized the commencement of clinical trials. The same happened in the United States at the end of March when the FDA gave its approval to Roche, the pharmaceutical company so that they could commence with human trials of the drug.
While researchers are scrambling to find treatments for all the various issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic – the cytokine storms attacking immune systems included – they’re also trying to learn why the above mentioned issue happens in the first place. What determines whether someone’s immune system will wreak havoc on their body once the virus is expelled? In many cases, it turns out that a number of cytokine storms are triggered by purely genetic factors.
This phenomenon has quite a few variations, but they all exhibit themselves in a common manner. All of them result in uncontrolled production of immune molecules, and these, in turn, lead to the potentially fatal shutdown of a number of different organs. Unfortunately, seeing as this isn’t an everyday issue; a lot of doctors aren’t even aware that it exists, so they’re not familiar with the treatment that needs to be performed.
Immunologists are talking about the fact that most medics wouldn’t have even heard of the cytokine storm phenomenon until a couple of weeks ago. However, with the spread of the highly infectious COVID-19 sweeping the world, it has become something of a hot topic.
Someone who is in the midst of a cytokine storm may have a very quick heart rate, as well lowered blood pressure and a high fever. If the storm is allowed to develop, it does not become readily apparent right away. Instead, it takes a couple of days after the infection for the immune system’s issue to rear its ugly head.
However, it’s crucial for doctors to spot it as early as possible and apply the appropriate treatment. If not, those few days could prove to be the difference between life and death for the patient. Unless doctors manage to contain it, the storm could become, much like its torrential namesake – beyond anyone’s control. In that case, it could cause far too many problems and damage for any medical staff to contain.
The appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many challenges at the feet of the worldwide scientific and medical communities. Immunology problems like one of the cytokine storms are just the tip of the iceberg, and new ones may appear in the coming weeks and months. That’s precisely why it’s important for everyone, the general public included, to keep themselves updated on the latest developments.