Mast cells activated by SARS-CoV-2 release histamine which increases IL-1 levels causing cytokine storm and inflammatory reaction in COVID-19

J Biol Regul Homeost Agents. 2020 Sep-Oct,;34(5):1629-1632. doi: 10.23812/20-2EDIT.


SARS-CoV-2 virus is an infectious agent commonly found in certain mammalian animal species and today also in humans. SARS-CoV-2, can cause a pandemic infection with severe acute lung injury respiratory distress syndrome in patients with COVID-19, that can lead to patient death across all ages. The pathology associated with pandemic infection is linked to an over-response of immune cells, including virus-activated macrophages and mast cells (MCs). The local inflammatory response in the lung that occurs after exposure to SARS-CoV-2 is due to a complex network of activated inflammatory innate immune cells and structural lung cells such as bronchial epithelial cells, endothelial cells and fibroblasts. Bronchial epithelial cells and fibroblasts activated by SARS-CoV-2 can result in the up-regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines and induction of MC differentiation. In addition, endothelial cells which control leukocyte traffic through the expression of adhesion molecules are also able to amplify leukocyte activation by generating interleukin (IL)-1, IL-6 and CXC chemokines. In this pathologic environment, the activation of mast cells (MCs) causes the release of histamine, proteases, cytokines, chemokines and arachidonic acid compounds, such as prostaglandin D2 and leukotrienes, all of which are involved in the inflammatory network. Histamine is stored endogenously within the secretory granules of MCs and is released into the vessels after cell stimulation. Histamine is involved in the expression of chemokine IL-8 and cytokine IL-6, an effect that can be inhibited by histamine receptor antagonists. IL-1 is a pleiotropic cytokine that is mainly active in inflammation and immunity. Alveolar macrophages activated by SARS-CoV-2 through the TLR produce IL-1 which stimulates MCs to produce IL-6. IL-1 in combination with IL-6 leads to excessive inflammation which can be lethal. In an interesting study published several years ago (by E. Vannier et al., 1993), it was found that histamine as well as IL-1 are implicated in the pathogenesis of pulmonary inflammatory reaction, after micorganism immune cell activation. IL-1 in combination with histamine can cause a strong increase of IL-1 levels and, consequently, a higher degree of inflammation. However, it has been reported that histamine alone has no effect on IL-1 production. Furthermore, histamine enhances IL-1-induced IL-6 gene expression and protein synthesis via H2 receptors in peripheral monocytes. Therefore, since MCs are large producers of histamine in inflammatory reactions, this vasoactive amine, by increasing the production of IL-1, can amplify the inflammatory process in the lung infected with SARS-CoV-2. Here, we have proposed for the first time an emerging role for histamine released by MCs which in combination with IL-1 can cause an increase in lung inflammation induced by the viral infection SARS-CoV-2.

Keywords: COVID-19; IL-1; SARS-CoV-2; coronavirus; cytokine; cytokine storm; histamine; inflammation.

Publication types

  • Editorial

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / immunology*
  • Cytokine Release Syndrome / virology*
  • Endothelial Cells / virology
  • Histamine / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • Interleukin-1 / immunology*
  • Mast Cells / virology*
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / immunology*
  • SARS-CoV-2


  • Interleukin-1
  • Histamine