What are Inflammatory Cytokines?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Cytokines are several different types of substances that are produced by cells within the immune system that relay signals between the immune system cells. Sometimes referred to as polypeptide regulators, there are two groups of inflammatory cytokines, each with their own particular characteristics and functions.

Fever and body aches may be indicative of a cytokine storm.
Fever and body aches may be indicative of a cytokine storm.

One form is known as the pro-inflammatory polypeptide regulators. These types of cytokines are created primarily by immune cells that are engaged in the process of amplifying inflammatory reactions as a means of dealing with some sort of health threat to the body. By relaying messages between the cells, these cytokines help to trigger the immune system’s rate of response to whatever threat is present.

Nausea may be present during a cytokine storm.
Nausea may be present during a cytokine storm.

Along with the pro-inflammatory cytokines, there is also anti-inflammatory cytokines. These have the opposite effect, in that they help to limit of inflammation present. This means that both types of cytokines often work to balance each other as they stimulate cell production and effect communication between cells. Because of this close relationship, many researchers tend to downplay the distinction of each type, since both can be simultaneously working on the same cell at any given point in time.

There are several factors that will influence the overall effect of these cytokines. The particular mix of pro and anti-inflammatory cytokines present is one example. The nature of the cells involved in the process is also very important, however, as is the general environment where the cell resides and the types of cells that are in the immediate area. In addition, the actions of the cytokines will also depend on the current growth rate of the cell in question.

A phenomenon involving the function of inflammatory cytokines is sometimes known as a cytokine storm. Essentially, this is a situation where the balance of communication between immune cells and the cytokines present is interrupted. As a result, the rate of production accelerates and can lead to serious health issues.

When the polypeptide regulators are involved in some sort of storm situation, there is a loopback created between both types of cytokines and the immune cells. This results is a runaway production pace that has the effect of exacerbating the ill effects of a condition, rather than helping the immune system deal effectively with whatever is ailing the body. There are several common signs that indicate that a storm is present, including fever, body aches and nausea, along with stronger symptoms that are related directly to the ailment itself. If not corrected, the results can prove fatal.

Cytokine storm is the body's over-reaction to infection.
Cytokine storm is the body's over-reaction to infection.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


I haven't taken a flu shot in over 10 years, will never take one again and only a fool would inject that poison (mercury and thimerosal) into his or her body!

When I was getting the flu shots, I still got the flu and noticed that when I got sick it took me four weeks to get over it where it used to be a week or two at the most. I've boosted my immune system, increased my D, and take care of myself now.


My best friend lost her sister to anorexia. So, she was more than willing to volunteer for a study to determine if cytokine levels had anything to do with the disorder.

She didn't have the disorder herself, but the researchers were looking for healthy people to compare against those with anorexia. They did a cytokine assay on everyone, and the results showed that people with anorexia did have lower levels of cytokines than healthy individuals.

So, it seems that psychological factors aren't the only thing that contributes to anorexia. I always thought that most people with this problem just got told by someone that they were fat, but it runs deeper than that.


@shell4life – I always get vaccinated, too! Very few people actually die from the flu, but I don't want to risk becoming a minority statistic.

I think we might have minor cytokine storms every time that we get viruses. I know that when I have a stomach virus, I feel extremely nauseated to the point of vomiting. I ache all over, and sometimes, I even have a fever.

When I get the flu, I have soreness all over my body. I feel very weak, and the high fever makes me a little delirious. I didn't know it before reading this article, but I know think that my own inflammatory response is what makes me loopy when I'm sick!


Pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines both go nuts in a person with a severe infection. My mother-in-law developed sepsis after having stomach surgery, and her cytokine levels were sky high.

As doctors often do, hers attempted to explain to us the science behind what was going on in her body. He told us what cytokines are supposed to do and what they often do in the presence of infection that turns out to do more harm than good.

He did tell us that people with high cytokine levels in their blood are in much more danger than those with low levels. This just served to scare us, but he wanted to let us know how bad the situation was so that we could call all her relatives in to see her.

It took over a month, but she did recover. However, she came as close to death as she ever has, and even the doctor didn't have confidence that she would make it.


I remember hearing a lot about the big bird flu scare years ago. I recall learning that an inflammatory cytokine storm was actually the cause of several deaths of people who had this type of flu.

So, instead of the actual virus being the killer, the person's own immune response is what really did them in. That is so sad to me. The poor body got tricked into flooding itself with things that are supposed to help.

I make sure to get a flu shot every year. I know that it is possible for a new, rare strain to pop up during the season that the vaccine might not be able to prevent, but still, I can avoid getting some strains of flu by getting the vaccine. I don't know if an inflammatory cytokine storm is possible with the regular old flu, but I don't want to chance it.

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