Why Autoimmune Patients with COVID-19 Should Beware of the Cytokine Storm

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease continues to infect people and claim lives across the globe, scientists and medical professionals are learning more about its impact on patients.

One interesting phenomenon that’s been observed is that some coronavirus patients experience relatively mild to moderate symptoms, while others experience severe, life-threatening problems that can land them in the ER. According to Sharp Health News, the virus itself may not be entirely to blame for this, but rather, an overreaction by the body’s immune system.

When a foreign agent, such as a virus, invades your body, your immune cells secrete cytokines, which are molecules that initiate an immune response. However, in some cases, immune cells continue to secrete cytokines, even after a sufficient immune response has been mounted. This is called a ‘cytokine storm’ and the overproduction of these molecules can cause a harmful inflammatory response in the body.

Certain people are more susceptible to cytokine storms than others; for example, there is evidence that those with genetic mutations in their immune cells are more vulnerable. According to creakyjoints.org, those with autoimmune conditions often have abnormally high levels of these cytokines, which is why autoimmune patients often take immune-suppressing medications. However, a cytokine storm isn’t the same as an autoimmune disease flare, though they can be related.

As detailed by creakyjoints.org, some autoimmune patients end up with cytokine storms unrelated to COVID-19. Dr. Randy Cron, a pediatric rheumatologist and author of the book Cytokine Storm Syndrome commented, “About 10% of patients with juvenile idiopathic arthritis will experience [a cytokine storm]; in some cases, multiple times.”

With regards to COVID-19, which is respiratory in nature, a cytokine storm can gravely impact a patient. Acute lung injury (ALI) is a common consequence of a cytokine storm occurring in the lungs, and if a lung infection is severe, the inflammation will spread to the rest of the body via one’s blood circulation and cause sepsis. In some cases, the immune response to an infection can even be deadly.

That’s why it’s important to ‘calm the storm’ and prevent a cytokine storm before it even happens. One type of treatment being explored for COVID-19 is hydroxychloroquine, which is an antiviral and immunosuppressant drug used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Sjogren’s. Although the medication is still undergoing clinical trials, many are hopeful that this drug will serve as a treatment to halt the progression of COVID-19.

Besides pharmaceutical therapies, Sharp Health News cites curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, as beneficial for its anti-inflammatory properties. A 2015 study states that in lab experiments, researchers found that curcumin blocked the release of the cytokines that are responsible for inflammation.

All in all, it’s important for autoimmune patients to guard against the coronavirus by adhering to strict hygiene guidelines, such as hand washing thoroughly with soap and water, avoiding close contact with others, and disinfecting surfaces routinely. Remember, prevention is the best form of treatment, and can help those with autoimmune disease to avoid a damaging cytokine storm.

10 Facts About Hidradenitis Suppurativa

According to the Hidrandenitis Suppurativa (HS) Foundation, HS is a chronic, painful skin disease that causes boils to form in the folds of the skin and has a profound impact on quality of life. Read out to find out 10 facts about this chronic autoimmune condition.

1. Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS) is a common disease

Although HS was once thought to be a rare disease, peer-reviewed medical journals have stated that HS affects approximately 1-4% of the world’s population, when taking into account all the stages of the disease. This means that there are millions of individuals living with this skin condition.

2. It affects certain areas of the skin

HS commonly occurs in the areas of the skin that rub together, such as the armpits (axillae), groin, buttocks, and underneath the breasts. These areas are rich in apocrine glands, which produce sweat, and have many hair follicles which can get obstructed. These obstructed follicles will then progress into pus-filled abscesses and boils. The boils can feel like hard lumps, or clusters of inflamed lesions and sinus tracts (called ‘tunnels’) which give off chronic seepage and can scar.

3. HS is classified into three stages

HS is classified into three stages called Hurley Staging. This classification method allows medical professionals to assign a severity level to HS. The three stages are:

  • Hurley stage I – a single lesion without a sinus tract (‘tunnel’) formation
  • Hurley stage II – multiple lesions or areas impacted, but with limited tunneling
  • Hurley stage III – multiple lesions involving an entire area of the body, with more extensive sinus tract formations and scarring.

Keep in mind that these stages don’t necessarily take into account disease activity, measure pain, or the impact on one’s quality of life.

4. There are several risk factors

The exact cause of HS is unknown. However, experts believe that the condition is connected to hormones, genetics, and autoimmune issues. HS is not caused by an infection or poor hygiene, and it isn’t contagious.

Though the exact cause isn’t known, there are a number of risk factors that can increase one’s likelihood of developing the disease, including:

  • Sex – Women are about three times more likely to develop HS than men.
  • Age – HS most commonly occurs in women between the ages of 18 and 29. It rarely occurs before puberty, though individuals who develop the condition at an early age may be at an increased risk of developing more widespread disease.
  • Family history – It’s believed that inherited genes may play a role.

5. Lifestyle factors also impact the disease

There are also lifestyle factors that can impact the disease, including:

  • Obesity – Several studies have shown a correlation between being overweight and HS. This may be due to increased friction on one’s body and being more prone to excessive perspiration.
  • Smoking – Smoking tobacco has been linked to HS as well.

As a result, it’s recommended for patients to maintain a healthy weight and to refrain from smoking.

6. HS can cause various complications

Persistent HS, especially when severe, can cause a number of complications, including skin infections and scars. The scarring can also interfere with lymph drainage, which can result in swelling in the arms, legs, or genital region. Sores and scar tissue can also restrict one’s movements, or make it too painful to move, especially when the disease impacts the armpits or groin area.

7. HS can also impact one’s mental health

HS can also impact one’s self-esteem and well being. For example, the location of the skin lesions, as well as issues like drainage, scarring, and malodorous smell can cause embarrassment, and make patients reluctant to go out in public or engage in activities that may reveal their skin, such as swimming. The resulting social isolation can lead to overwhelming sadness or even depression. In fact, many patients with HS go undiagnosed for years because they are too ashamed to speak with a health care provider about their symptoms.

8. HS occurs in tandem with several conditions

According to the HS Foundation, research has found that certain health conditions (called ‘comorbidities’) commonly occur in tandem with HS. These conditions include metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, acne, and more. HS is sometimes referred to in other countries as ‘acne inversa’, although it isn’t a type of acne.

9. There is no cure, but treatments can help

Treatment for HS depends on what clinical stage a patient is in and the severity of their condition. Mild HS is treated with antibacterial soaps, anti-inflammatory medications, and warm compresses. It’s also recommended to wear loose-fitting clothing. More severe forms of the disease may require antibiotics, oral retinoids, anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, hormones, and TNF-alpha inhibitors. Other treatments include laser hair removal, radiation therapy, carbon dioxide laser therapy and surgery to remove the affected area.

10. There is hope

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Hidradenitis Suppurativa, visit the Hope for HS website, which has an extensive library of patient resources, including information about wound care and listings for nationwide support groups. The organization also lists out clinical trials that patients can participate in, as well as recent research and news items, so that you can stay on top of the latest developments about the disease.

Thank you for stopping by Autoimmune Warrior. If this article was informative to you, please like, share and comment below!

April is Sjogren’s Awareness Month; Read My Story

Hello Autoimmune Warriors! I hope you’ve all had a great start to April, despite the coronavirus pandemic that we all find ourselves in. April is actually Sjogren’s Syndrome awareness month, and as such, I wanted to share my own story battling this autoimmune disease here on the blog as well as on social media.

Name: Isabel

Current age: 27

Age when diagnosed: 20

City/State: San Diego, California

Please finish with the following sentence: “Since I was diagnosed with Sjögren’s, I have learned…”

…that self-care is extremely important when you have a chronic illness. After I was first diagnosed, I continued to push myself physically, academically and professionally the way I would have pre-diagnosis. But it’s really important to listen to your body and take it easy sometimes, even if that means it will take longer to accomplish your goals.

What are your most difficult symptoms?

Right now, joint pain, particularly in my hands, is my most challenging symptom. However, eye and mouth dryness, fatigue, and brain fog have been difficult for me as well.

How has Sjögren’s affected your life and how have you been able to effectively cope with the complexity of symptoms?

It takes me longer to accomplish tasks than it did before, due to chronic pain and fatigue. I have to go to the dentist a lot to take care of my oral hygiene, and I see different specialists for each of my symptoms. I also take various medications to cope with symptoms like dryness and joint pain. Other than taking medications, I cope with the symptoms by connecting with others living with the disease on social media and through my blog, autoimmunewarrior.org.

What do you wish people knew about your Sjögren’s?

It’s not just dry eyes and mouth, and even those symptoms can be debilitating if they’re severe enough. This disease involves the whole body, and it’s a lot more than just a small ‘nuisance’, which is what it’s often portrayed to be.

Given recent global events amid the coronavirus/COVID-19, do you have any specific concerns because of Sjögren’s? 

As part of my treatment plan, I take immunosuppressant medication, which I’m afraid puts me at greater risk of not being able to fight off an infection, like COVID-19, if I were to catch it.

What’s your best Sjögren’s tip?

Find a team of medical professionals, including a rheumatologist and dentist, who are knowledgeable about Sjogren’s and have experience treating this disease specifically. Unfortunately, based on personal experience, I’ve found that few medical professionals are truly educated about the impact that Sjogren’s has on patients, so it’s important to connect with those that really understand the complexity of the disease and how it manifests.

Thank you for reading my story! If you’d like to learn more about how I was diagnosed with Sjogren’s, please visit the following article: My Struggle with Autoimmunity: Part 1.

If you’d like to share your own story, please visit the This Is Sjogren’s webpage on the Sjogren’s Foundation website to learn how you can be a part of the #ThisIsSjogrens awareness campaign.