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What Is the Cytokine Storm?

The immune system is supposed to protect our body—and in most cases, it does. For example, when our body recognizes a foreign microorganism (which can lead to an infection) it sends an army of antibodies to that particular organ. The antibodies kill the microorganism, and all is well.

However, something may go wrong. The body may send too many antibodies that these cause what doctors call a “cytokine storm.” This can actually cause the organ to malfunction, and hurt the body more than the microorganism it tried to “kill.” For example, a cytokine storm in the lungs can block air passages and cause a person to suffocate.

Cytokine storms are caused by an overactive immune response. In the first stages, it is business as usual: white blood cells in the blood stream alert the body of the presence of a virus or bacteria. The body responds by sending T-cells and macrophages, which fight the microorganism. Scientists have yet to pinpoint where, in this process, the body begins to turn against itself. But the body keeps sending more and more antibodies, causing the tissues around the infection to inflame.

Cytokine storms can occur in sepsis, pneumonia, some types of flu viruses, and rheumatoid arthritis. Particularly vicious cases of cytokine storms can occur in epidemic strains. Medical researchers are trying to create drugs that can slow down antibodies during a cytokine storm, or lead it to recirculate in other parts of the body. Otherwise, a relatively “common” flu could become so deadly—and if it spreads, could lead to a pandemic that could take down millions as it has done before.

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