- Physicians have learned better ways to treat COVID-19 patients and save more lives than in the early months of the pandemic, but the coronavirus is still killing people every day.
- A doctor explains that the most dangerous coronavirus complication can appear without warning — even after you think the worst has passed or that you’ve recovered.
- The so-called “cytokine storm” is an exacerbated immune response that harms healthy cells as well as infected ones and can lead to multiple organ failure or death.
Even though the coronavirus is surging again and might reach a new record peak during the winter months, the number of COVID-19 deaths isn’t growing at the same pace. Thousands of people still die every day around the world of coronavirus complications, but that’s because the number of active cases is still so high. Hundreds of thousands of new infections are piling up each day, and a few thousand of those will die in the coming weeks. But doctors have learned how to treat coronavirus patients better than in the early months of the pandemic. Several therapies exist that can reduce complications, and while there’s no perfect cure, the death rate continues to drop each month. Still, doctors warn that we’re not out of the woods yet. Among the many dangers that exist, there’s a deadly coronavirus complication that can appear without warning, even when you think you’ve recovered or that the worst has passed.
One of the terms that is often used when detailing severe COVID-19 complications and deaths, as well as potential therapies to prevent them, is “cytokine storm.” This is a phenomenon that appears with various medical conditions, including COVID-19, and can be deadly. It’s an exacerbated immune response that can harm organs, leading to organ failure and possibly death. That’s where drugs like dexamethasone and other steroids can come in handy, as they can reduce the immune response the body mounts against the novel coronavirus and potentially save patients’ lives.
These cytokine storms will damage healthy tissue alongside the infected cells that the immune system is trying to clear. They will impact the lungs where the main coronavirus infection occurs, but also other organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys.
While doctors recognize cytokine storms and can attempt to treat them, they still can’t fully predict them or explain why they occur. Researchers have already analyzed all sorts of potential markers that might warn doctors in the ICU that certain patients are likely to develop complications.
But cytokine storms can appear suddenly, even in patients who seem to have recovered, and even weeks after the initial diagnosis.
Professor David Isenberg, the director of the University College of Centre for Rheumatology, explained during a Royal Society of Medicine webinar that there’s often a “lull before the storm.” A patient might seem to be recovering before the cytokine storm kicks in, often with fatal outcomes. You may see what seems to be an improvement after a short while either spontaneously or due to therapy,” Isenberg said. “But it’s a lull before the storm because having improved somewhat, it can then come back again, and that’s when it can be truly fatal.”
Isenberg continued, “Cytokines are small molecules. They are part of the body’s innate response to infection, but a sudden release in large amounts is what causes problems. The storm is when the innate immune system gives rise, to reasons which are still not entirely clear, to a completely uncontrolled and excessive release in these pro-inflammatory signally molecules.”
“What still remains a bit of a mystery is why some individuals are more prone to the problem than others,” the doctor added.
A recent study said there might be a way to predict COVID-19 complications, proposing a new “Dublin-Boston” score based on testing the values of two cytokines, IL-6 and IL-10.
Whether or not doctors will be able to accurately predict complications like cytokine storms, Isenberg’s warning should be a reminder of why COVID-19 can be so dangerous. Preventive measures that can stop the illness’s spread are the only way to avoid infection and potential complications.