Cytokine Storm in COVID 19 Simplified

author avatar Dr. Eric Berg 04/09/2024

Let’s face it. These are frightening times. COVID 19 has upended our regular lives. You or someone you care about may have suffered with this disease.

In all the many media reports, you’ve probably heard the term cytokine storm. It sounds ominous, and it potentially is. But what, exactly, is a cytokine storm? How harmful is it; and, who’s at risk?

More importantly, can you lower your risk of experiencing one?

In this article, I’ll explain:

Let’s dive in.


What Is A Cytokine Storm?

A cytokine storm occurs in severe cases of COVID 19 and related respiratory diseases such as SARS and MERS. The symptoms are:

  • Very high fever

  • Enlarged spleen

  • An out-of-control inflammatory state, not only in the lungs but throughout the rest of your body

  • Either an increase or decrease in white blood cells

  • Low blood pressure

You can see these are potentially life-threatening symptoms. If you experience a cytokine storm, your risk of dying goes way up.

a drawing of macro images of viruses

Another name for cytokine storm is macrophage activation syndrome. A macrophage is a type of white blood cell - more on that in a minute.


Who’s Most At Risk

You’re at risk for a cytokine storm if your immune system is weak; or you have a genetic tendency toward this condition; or, you are grossly overweight.

And the question becomes, what is a cytokine?

It’s a protein that’s a communication messenger. Cytokines signal your cells to do certain things, similar to the role that hormones have in your body.

Let’s take a look at the process.

How A Cytokine Storm Begins

When the virus invades your cells, your cells alert your immune system that there’s a problem, and they need help. This can signal the beginning of what ultimately becomes the huge inflammatory overreaction we call a cytokine storm.

If this strong reaction happens in your lungs, your lungs will be damaged. If the inflammation gets out of control, your lungs get so damaged that they fill with fluid - and you essentially drown in your own fluid.

a drawing of lungs of a young man infected with the coronavirus

Of course, it’s not only your lungs at risk. Your other organs are too.

The cytokine signals your immune system that it needs to fight an infection, and your immune system responds by marshalling its troops.

Now let’s more closely examine the types and roles of specific immune cells.

Immune Cells And The Roles They Play


Macro means large; phage means to eat. Thus, a macrophage is a large cell that can eat certain substances such as viruses and bacteria. The macrophage engulfs a virus and binds it to a sack filled with acid and poisons meant to dissolve the virus, stopping its replication and damage.

(As a side note, if these chemicals were to leach out into the macrophage itself, the macrophage too would be destroyed. As you can imagine, the sack is very well protected.)

B Cells

B cells are a part of your immune system that help you develop antibodies. Then, if you’re exposed to the same virus later, your body has a memory of it, and your body is prepared to marshall its forces to more effectively fight off the virus.

Mast Cells

Mast cells are involved with what’s called histamine reactions.

You’ve probably heard of antihistamines in the context of sinus congestion having to do with allergies. Mast cells are heavily involved in cytokines and resultant inflammation.


Interferon is not a cell, but a body chemical that releases cytokines as a means of protecting your body. Interferon is also quite involved in attacking viruses that invade your body.


Cytotoxic T Cells, Natural Killer Cells, And Their Effective Weapon

Cytotoxic T cells and natural killer cells are two more immune system cells that are important to you to health. Both these types of cells have a weapon to kill the cell that’s become infected with the virus.

This weapon is a protein called perforin. Perforin literally punches holes in the infected cell then injects a poison to kill it.

a drawing of an immune cell killing a virus

What medical professionals have discovered is that cytokine storms tend to occur in people who are defective in perforin. This may be because you have a genetic defect in your body’s ability to make perforin, or it may be because your immune system is weak.

It’s like having an army willing to fight, but their weapons have been taken away. In other words, a lack of perforin can compromise your army’s effectiveness.

The problem with having an army without all its weaponry fighting an infection, and thus unable to kill the infected cells, is that an infinite feedback loop is created. The army never stands down because the enemy is never fully defeated; therefore, the army must keep fighting. But it’s ineffective.

And the battle continues on without a clear victor.

Right about now you’re probably wondering, why would my body let an immune response get out of control?

Why Your Immune Reaction Gets Out Of Control

There are parts of your immune system that are meant to suppress wildly overblown and uncontrolled immune reactions. But they’re compromised. In a cytokine storm, those suppressive parts are destroyed by your own body, so they can’t prevent an immune overreaction.

Sounds frightening, and it is. But there are steps you can take to lessen the chances that your immune system reaction will get out of control.


How You Can Lessen Your Risk Of A Cytokine Storm

Zinc is a trace mineral that enhances perforin. In other words, zinc can re-arm the troops of your immune system.

Ideally, you’re already consuming sufficient amounts of zinc, but if you’re not, the spectre of a cytokine storm is yet another reason to beef up on zinc. Pun intended - because beef is full of zinc. So too is shellfish, especially oysters. Zinc has over two hundred enzymes, many of which are involved in improving your overall immune system.

a photograph of foods rich in zinc

Clearly, upping your intake of zinc is a very simple and timely action you can take to strengthen your immune system.

I also encourage you to follow my mantra: get healthy to lose weight. If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know I talk about this a lot!

And for much more information about how you can bolster your immune system, I give you lots of advice in this video.

Bottom line is that now, more than ever, is the time to take charge of your health. You’ll not only lessen your risk from COVID 19 and a potential cytokine storm, but you’ll be improving your health for the rest of your life. Time to get going.

Disclaimer: Our educational content is not meant or intended for medical advice or treatment.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for quality and relevancy.

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