As the coronavirus crisis continues to remain a grave problem for many around the world, there has been much discussion surrounding why some individuals with the illness develop life-threatening symptoms while others have no symptoms at all (or mild ones). According to Health.com, the reason why some patients develop more extreme symptoms could tie back to one's immune system and more specifically, an ailment called cytokine storm syndrome. But what exactly is cytokine storm syndrome?
The immune system naturally responds whenever the body is fighting an infection. One part of this response involves releasing cytokines, which allows for better communication between cells. The American Cancer Society noted that these cytokines signal the immune system to do its job which, consequently, helps one fight off an infection. Carl Fichtenbaum, MD, a professor within the infectious diseases division of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine explains that when the cytokines are engaged too much, it could actually become detrimental to a patient as it could lead to the immune system causing damage.
Health.com went on to report that medical professionals are not surprised to see cytokine storm syndrome develop amongst patients with the coronavirus. The publication noted that cytokine storms can be prompted by a number of issues such as influenza, pneumonia, and sepsis. Deepa Gotur, MD, a critical care physician at Houston Methodist Hospital, explained that many of the patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, who are experiencing these cytokine storms are presenting with fevers and shortness of breath. Certain patients have had such difficulty breathing that they have needed ventilation. These symptoms reportedly occur about six or seven days after first developing the illness.
"We’re seeing people across the course of this illness respond in a hyper-inflammatory way," Dr. Gotur explained. "It’s a cascade of cytokines affecting the patient’s lungs, heart, kidneys. The extent [to which their bodies are overreacting] is similar to the way cancer patients respond to infection."
As of right now, there is no test to determine whether an individual is experiencing a cytokine storm. When it comes to treatments, there are some options such as utilizing ventilator intubation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). Dr. Gotur shared that medical professionals realized that they need to utilize their resources so that they can better treat patients with COVID-19 and, specifically, patients who have developed cytokine storm syndrome. He said, "Our mortality is low because we have a set algorithm and approach for every stage of this disease process. We have instances where we feel we have prevented the patient from needing a ventilator or ECMO support."