Doctors are finding signs of cytokine storm in many of the most dire coronavirus cases. Higher levels of cytokines are common in the most severe cases of the disease, especially in those who are young and healthy. A patient who would normally be expected to push through a virus or infection relatively well given their age and overall health might suddenly become dangerously sick within a very short period of time.
"Cytokine storms can affect any age from infancy on up through adulthood," says Cron. "For COVID-19, it appears as if children may be relatively spared the cytokine storm syndrome compared to adults."
According to Cron, there are some therapies to help the patient deal with their immune system dangerously overdoing it, but it's a relatively new area of research, and information isn't always disseminated equally among health professionals treating people with COVID-19. Cron estimates that as many as 15 percent of people fighting off serious infection will also contend with cytokine storm syndrome.
Cytokine storms can occur in patients of any age, but some doctors believe they might provide an explanation for why the 1918 pandemic killed so many people in the normally resilient 20-40 year old age group. Researchers also think they can see the signature of cytokine storms in more recent SARS, MERS and H1N1 epidemics, but why aren't we seeing them more with everyday illnesses like the common cold?
"Certain viruses are more likely to trigger cytokine storm syndrome than others, including COVID-19," says Cron. "It is rare with common colds, but certainly can happen with bad strains of the flu virus and even hemorrhagic fever virus like Ebola or Dengue."