[Ask Dr Chiu] Cytokine storm: the lethal tempest within a young COVID-19 patient

[Ask Dr Chiu] Cytokine storm: the lethal tempest within a young COVID-19 patient

[Ask Dr Chiu] Cytokine storm: the lethal tempest within a young COVID-19 patient



5  Mins Read

Amongst the mortality associated with COVID-19, there is a recent report of death regarding a young person of age 42, who has good health and with no chronic illnesses all along. According to the Hospital Authority, the cause of death of this person was due to “cytokine storm”, a term that sounds scary and also never heard of.


What exactly is “cytokine storm”?

The term cytokine is made up of two parts, with cyto meaning cell, and kine meaning action. As its name suggested, cytokine is a protein substance secreted from our cells to signal action of the body. One of the most important function of cytokine is indeed to signal the body to combat against intruding infection.

Fever for instance, is one example of result of cytokine release. When we face infection, cytokine will cause our body to increase the temperature, which in turn will enhance the activity of white cells and antibody in blood to kill virus and germs.

Cytokine is meant to be a defense mechanism of our body, but in some situation the release of cytokine becomes deregulated, with massive amount of cytokines secreted causing harm to our body. When this happens, it is known as “cytokine storm”.

When cytokine storm occurs, it may cause damages to our lungs, heart, kidney, liver etc, leading to multiple organ failure. Patients may deteriorate very rapidly within a short period of time and require resuscitation within intensive care unit. Unfortunately, many a times patients will die because of cytokine storm.

At present, we do not know what exactly causes “cytokine storm”. Based on observation though, it tends to occur more frequently in the young and healthy when they suffer from infection. Even though the infection itself is not lethal, but if cytokine storm was triggered, the outcome could still be devastating. Furthermore, since we do not have effective treatment against this condition, the best way for us to avoid cytokine storm is to avoid infection. For COVID-19, apart from universal masking, hand hygiene and social distancing, we should also seriously consider vaccination to enhance our protection.