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Cytokine Storms

A cytokine storm doesn’t blow in off the Pacific Ocean with high winds and lashing rains. Instead, it is quiet and unseen, lurking within you. A cytokine storm, also known as a blood storm, is an overreaction of the individual’s immune system to a virus or pathogen. These “storms” within our bodies turn deadly when unchecked.

The body’s immune system is a highly efficient seek-and-destroy mechanism preventing foreign objects from invading beneath the skin. Cytokines are a class of molecules acting as an early warning system. They are the chemical alarm bells calling in an army of defensive cells and molecules when the need arises.

The body’s immune response focuses its defenses on the areas of the body where cytokines detect invaders. The immune system then sends aid to vanquish the intruders. But as immune defenses collect in a local area, they cause inflammation, redness, and swelling. 

So, feeling sick is more about our immune system’s reaction to a virus than the virus itself.

Malfunctions and false calls of distress

Normally when a threat has been neutralized, the cytokines will cease sending out alarm signals. But, sometimes things go wrong. When the cytokines should pack-up and go home, they stay and continue sending alerts to the rest of the immune system. Under these circumstances, the immune system keeps pumping defensive cells and molecules to the location of the cytokine alarm. Thus, turning the body into a chaotic battlefield with a psychopathic commander in charge. 

The result is that blood vessels fill with unneeded immune cells and molecules trying to attack a non-existent enemy. These excess cells then crowd out other vital cells, therefore starving the body of oxygen and nutrients. The rogue immune molecules are powerful destroyers intended to work within the circulatory system. However, during cytokine storms, they flood through the body and can leak out of the circulatory system where they start attacking healthy cells. 

If left unchecked, cytokine storms inflict organ damage and possibly death. The patient then dies from a malfunctioning immune system, not the virus. The virus, of course, triggers the initial cytokine response, but the direct cause of death is a malfunctioning cytokine alarm system.

Turning off the alarm

Medical solutions to the problems of cytokine storms involve tricking or removing the cytokine molecules. Some drug options work at the cellular level preventing the production of the molecules. But, other treatments include filtering the cytokines out of the bloodstream. At a molecular level, treatments that stop the cytokine molecules from sending their alarm signals can prevent the damage.

But all of these treatments carry risk. They dampen the immune system that mother nature designed to help us survive. The delicate balance between an immune system delivering too much or too little is also the balance between life and death.


Virus survival strategies (Source: ArcheanWeb) –  Also:


How quieting ‘blood storms’ could be key to treating severe COVID-19 (By KATHERINE J. WU; National Geographic) –  Also:

Feature Image: Cytokine release (Modified) – By – , CC BY-SA 4.0,

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.