What you should know about Guillain-Barre syndrome and COVID-19

When your body senses a threat, like a virus, bacteria or other infectious invader, it sends out immune cells to attack and destroy the threat. This response can save your life… but it can also cause serious problems… even death.

You see, sometimes, your body has too strong of an immune response when fighting an infection. It sends out too many immune cells and they start attacking healthy tissues and organs. And in many cases, it’s this overactive response to a virus or bacteria, not the virus or bacteria itself, that seriously harms or kills people.

We’ve already seen evidence that this overactive immune response is a big factor in COVID-19. Research shows that the immune response to COVID-19 may be damaging people’s lungs as much if not more than the virus itself. And there’s evidence that the immune response can damage other organs and systems of the body as well, including the liver, kidneys, heart and even the central nervous system.

In fact, new research shows that COVID-19 could cause a serious nervous system disorder triggered by an overactive immune response — Guillain-Barre syndrome.

People with COVID-19 could develop Guillain-Barre too

Guillain-Barre syndrome is a nervous system disorder in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your peripheral nerves. This triggers serious neurological symptoms like weakness, numbness, tingling, and in some cases, even paralysis.

Guillain-Barre isn’t all that common. It only impacts about 1 in 100,000 Americans. But those who are affected by it often have something in common — in the weeks before developing it, they were fighting off a bug. Usually, a gastrointestinal bug that causes diarrhea or a respiratory infection.

It’s suspected that the body’s immune response to this bacterial or viral bug is what causes Guillain-Barre in many cases. There are even a few specific viruses and bacteria that have been linked to a higher likelihood of Guillain-Barre in research:

  • Influenza
  • Cytomegalovirus (a type of herpes virus)
  • Epstein-Barr virus (the virus that causes mononucleosis)
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia
  • HIV or AIDS
  • Zika

And now, new research shows we can add COVID-19 to that list. The study came from doctors in northern Italy who were treating a COVID-19 outbreak in late February and March. Three hospitals in the region had a total of 1,200 COVID-19 patients and five of them developed Guillain-Barre.

In these cases, the symptoms of Guillain-Barre developed five to 10 days after their COVID-19 symptoms first struck. Their first Guillain-Barre symptoms included weakness in the legs, tingling, and facial weakness. Two days after developing their first Guillain-Barre symptoms, these patients ended up with all four of their limbs either weakened or paralyzed.

The good news is Guillain-Barre symptoms are typically temporary. People who develop the condition gradually gain back their neurological function over six to 12 months, although sometimes it can take up to three years.

How much do you need to worry about Guillain-Barre syndrome?

Even though Guillain-Barre is something to be aware of during this COVID-19 crisis, it’s not something to become overly concerned about. The vast majority of people who develop COVID-19 will recover without a serious complication like Guillain-Barre. In this study, it only impacted 0.4 percent of people.

Still, should you or your loved one develop any unusual neurological symptoms while infected with COVID-19, bring it to your doctor’s attention immediately. Based on this study, the rate of Guillain-Barre in people with COVID-19 may be higher than average.

Hopefully, many of us can protect ourselves from getting COVID-19 and any related problems altogether. Just keep social distancing, wearing masks, handwashing and taking other prevention measures until a vaccine is developed and this whole pandemic period seems like a bad dream.

Sources:

  1. Some COVID-19 patients stricken by Guillain-Barre syndrome— MedicalXpress
  2. Guillain-Barré Syndrome— Healthline
  3. Update: Can COVID-19 Cause Sepsis? Explaining the Relationship Between the Coronavirus Disease and Sepsis— Global Sepsis Alliance
  4. How does COVID-19 kill? Uncertainty is hampering doctors’ ability to choose treatments— Nature
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.