COVID-19 and Cushing’s syndrome: recommendations for a special population with endogenous glucocorticoid excess

Rosario Pivonello,a,b Rosario Ferrigno,a Andrea M Isidori,c Beverly M K Biller,d Ashley B Grossman,e,f and Annamaria Colaoa,b

Over the past few months, COVID-19, the pandemic disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, has been associated with a high rate of infection and lethality, especially in patients with comorbidities such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and immunodeficiency syndromes.

These cardiometabolic and immune impairments are common comorbidities of Cushing’s syndrome, a condition characterised by excessive exposure to endogenous glucocorticoids. In patients with Cushing’s syndrome, the increased cardiovascular risk factors, amplified by the increased thromboembolic risk, and the increased susceptibility to severe infections, are the two leading causes of death.

In healthy individuals in the early phase of infection, at the physiological level, glucocorticoids exert immunoenhancing effects, priming danger sensor and cytokine receptor expression, thereby sensitising the immune system to external agents. However, over time and with sustained high concentrations, the principal effects of glucocorticoids are to produce profound immunosuppression, with depression of innate and adaptive immune responses. Therefore, chronic excessive glucocorticoids might hamper the initial response to external agents and the consequent activation of adaptive responses. Subsequently, a decrease in the number of B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes, as well as a reduction in T-helper cell activation might favour opportunistic and intracellular infection. As a result, an increased risk of infection is seen, with an estimated prevalence of 21–51% in patients with Cushing’s syndrome. Therefore, despite the absence of data on the effects of COVID-19 in patients with Cushing’s syndrome, one can make observations related to the compromised immune state in patients with Cushing’s syndrome and provide expert advice for patients with a current or past history of Cushing’s syndrome.

Fever is one of the hallmarks of severe infections and is present in up to around 90% of patients with COVID-19, in addition to cough and dyspnoea. However, in active Cushing’s syndrome, the low-grade chronic inflammation and the poor immune response might limit febrile response in the early phase of infection. Conversely, different symptoms might be enhanced in patients with Cushing’s syndrome; for instance, dyspnoea might occur because of a combination of cardiac insufficiency or weakness of respiratory muscles. Therefore, during active Cushing’s syndrome, physicians should seek different signs and symptoms when suspecting COVID-19, such as cough, together with dysgeusia, anosmia, and diarrhoea, and should be suspicious of any change in health status of their patients with Cushing’s syndrome, rather than relying on fever and dyspnoea as typical features.

The clinical course of COVID-19 might also be difficult to predict in patients with active Cushing’s syndrome. Generally, patients with COVID-19 and a history of obesity, hypertension, or diabetes have a more severe course, leading to increased morbidity and mortality. Because these conditions are observed in most patients with active Cushing’s syndrome, these patients might be at an increased risk of severe course, with progression to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), when developing COVID-19. However, a key element in the development of ARDS during COVID-19 is the exaggerated cellular response induced by the cytokine increase, leading to massive alveolar–capillary wall damage and a decline in gas exchange. Because patients with Cushing’s syndrome might not mount a normal cytokine response, these patients might parodoxically be less prone to develop severe ARDS with COVID-19. Moreover, Cushing’s syndrome and severe COVID-19 are associated with hypercoagulability, such that patients with active Cushing’s syndrome might present an increased risk of thromboembolism with COVID-19. Consequently, because low molecular weight heparin seems to be associated with lower mortality and disease severity in patients with COVID-19, and because anticoagulation is also recommended in specific conditions in patients with active Cushing’s syndrome, this treatment is strongly advised in hospitalised patients with Cushing’s syndrome who have COVID-19. Furthermore, patients with active Cushing’s syndrome are at increased risk of prolonged duration of viral infections, as well as opportunistic infections, particularly atypical bacterial and invasive fungal infections, leading to sepsis and an increased mortality risk, and COVID-19 patients are also at increased risk of secondary bacterial or fungal infections during hospitalisation. Therefore, in cases of COVID-19 during active Cushing’s syndrome, prolonged antiviral treatment and empirical prophylaxis with broad-spectrum antibiotics should be considered, especially for hospitalised patients (panel ).

Panel

Risk factors and clinical suggestions for patients with Cushing’s syndrome who have COVID-19

Reduction of febrile response and enhancement of dyspnoea

Rely on different symptoms and signs suggestive of COVID-19, such as cough, dysgeusia, anosmia, and diarrhoea.

Prolonged duration of viral infections and susceptibility to superimposed bacterial and fungal infections

Consider prolonged antiviral and broad-spectrum antibiotic treatment.

Impairment of glucose metabolism (negative prognostic factor)

Optimise glycaemic control and select cortisol-lowering drugs that improve glucose metabolism. Hypertension (negative prognostic factor) Optimise blood pressure control and select cortisol-lowering drugs that improve blood pressure.

Thrombosis diathesis (negative prognostic factor)

Start antithrombotic prophylaxis, preferably with low-molecular-weight heparin treatment.

Surgery represents the first-line treatment for all causes of Cushing’s syndrome, but during the pandemic a delay might be appropriate to reduce the hospital-associated risk of COVID-19, any post-surgical immunodepression, and thromboembolic risks. Because immunosuppression and thromboembolic diathesis are common Cushing’s syndrome features, during the COVID-19 pandemic, cortisol-lowering medical therapy, including the oral drugs ketoconazole, metyrapone, and the novel osilodrostat, which are usually effective within hours or days, or the parenteral drug etomidate when immediate cortisol control is required, should be temporarily used. Nevertheless, an expeditious definitive diagnosis and proper surgical resolution of hypercortisolism should be ensured in patients with malignant forms of Cushing’s syndrome, not only to avoid disease progression risk but also for rapidly ameliorating hypercoagulability and immunospuppression; however, if diagnostic procedures cannot be easily secured or surgery cannot be done for limitations of hospital resources due to the pandemic, medical therapy should be preferred. Concomitantly, the optimisation of medical treatment for pre-existing comorbidities as well as the choice of cortisol-lowering drugs with potentially positive effects on obesity, hypertension, or diabates are crucial to improve the eventual clinical course of COVID-19.

Once patients with Cushing’s syndrome are in remission, the risk of infection is substantially decreased, but the comorbidities related to excess glucocorticoids might persist, including obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, together with thromboembolic diathesis. Because these are features associated with an increased death risk in patients with COVID-19, patients with Cushing’s syndrome in remission should be considered a high-risk population and consequently adopt adequate self-protection strategies to minimise contagion risk.

In conclusion, COVID-19 might have specific clinical presentation, clinical course, and clinical complications in patients who also have Cushing’s syndrome during the active hypercortisolaemic phase, and therefore careful monitoring and specific consideration should be given to this special, susceptible population. Moreover, the use of medical therapy as a bridge treatment while waiting for the pandemic to abate should be considered.

Acknowledgments

RP reports grants and personal fees from Novartis, Strongbridge, HRA Pharma, Ipsen, Shire, and Pfizer; grants from Corcept Therapeutics and IBSA Farmaceutici; and personal fees from Ferring and Italfarmaco. AMI reports non-financial support from Takeda and Ipsen; grants and non-financial support from Shire, Pfizer, and Corcept Therapeutics. BMKB reports grants from Novartis, Strongbridge, and Millendo; and personal fees from Novartis and Strongbridge. AC reports grants and personal fees from Novartis, Ipsen, Shire, and Pfizer; personal fees from Italfarmaco; and grants from Lilly, Merck, and Novo Nordisk. All other authors declare no competing interests.

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Cushing’s Patients at Risk of Life-threatening Pulmonary Fungal Infection

Cushing’s disease patients who exhibit nodules or masses in their lungs should be thoroughly investigated to exclude fungal infection with Cryptococcus neoformans, a study from China suggests.

While rare, the infection can be life-threatening, showing a particularly worse prognosis in patients with fluid infiltration in their lungs or with low white blood cell counts in their blood.

The study, “Cushing’s disease with pulmonary Cryptococcus neoformans infection in a single center in Beijing, China: A retrospective study and literature review,” was published in the Journal of the Formosan Medical Association.

Cortisol, a hormone that is produced in excess in Cushing’s disease patients, is a kind of glucocorticoid that suppresses inflammation and immunity. Consequently, subjects exposed to cortisol for long periods, much like immuno-compromised patients, are at high risk for infections.

In Cushing’s patients, the most common infections include Pneumocystis jiroveciAspergillus fumigatus, and Cryptococcosis — 95 percent of which are caused by C. neoformans.

But while “Cushing’s disease patients are susceptible to C. neoformans, the association between pulmonary C.neoformans and [Cushing’s disease] is poorly explored,” researchers said.

In an attempt to understand the clinical characteristics of Cushing’s patients who develop C.neoformans infections, researchers in Beijing, China, reviewed the clinical records of six patients at their clinical center.

Their analysis also included six other patients whose cases had been reported in previous publications.

Patients had a mean age of 44 and 10 were diagnosed initially with high blood pressure. Seven also had diabetes mellitus.

All patients had elevated cortisol levels in their urine and high levels of the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Ultimately, all patients were found to have masses in their pituitary glands, causing the high cortisol and ACTH levels.

Patients complained of lung symptoms, including shortness of breath after physical activity, cough, and expectoration. But they had no fever or signs of blood in the lungs, which could suggest lung infection.

A CT scan of the chest then revealed lung nodules in four patients, and lung masses in five patients. Four patients, including one with a lung mass, also had lung air spaces filled with some material (pulmonary consolidation), which was consistent with pulmonary infection.

After analyzing lung nodule/mass biopsies, lung fluids, or blood samples, all patients were diagnosed with C. neoformans pulmonary cryptococcosis.

For their infection, patients received anti-fungal drugs, including amphotericin-B, fluconazole, flucytosine, and liposomal amphotericin. Cushing’s disease, however, was treated with surgery in 10 patients and ketoconazole in two patients.

Despite the treatments, five patients died during follow-up, including four who experienced co-infections or spreading of the cryptococcal infection and one patient with extensive bleeding after surgical removal of the gallbladder.

Among them, two patients had significantly low white blood cell levels and elevated cortisol levels, and four had infiltration in their lungs, suggesting these are markers of poor prognoses.

Researchers also noted that the patients who received ketoconazole died during in the reviewed studies. They attribute this to ketoconazole’s anti-fungal properties, which may interfere with its ability to manage Cushing’s symptoms.

Given the high susceptibility of Cushing’s disease patients to C. neoformans infections, “pulmonary nodules or masses should be aggressively investigated to exclude” this potentially fatal opportunistic infection, the researchers suggested.

“The infiltration lesions in chest CT scan and lymphopenia seem to be potential to reflect the poor prognosis,” they said.

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2018/06/15/pulmonary-fungal-infection-threatens-cushings-disease-patients-study/

Cushing’s Syndrome Epidemiology

By Yolanda Smith, BPharm

Cushing’s syndrome is considered to be a rare disorder that results from prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids. However, there are few epidemiological studies to provide adequate data to describe the incidence and prevalence of the condition accurately. Most cases are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, although any individual may be affected at any age.

The presentation of the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome can vary greatly. In addition, many of the symptoms overlap with those caused by other health conditions, such as metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome. This can make the diagnosis of the condition difficult. It is also difficult to establish epidemiological trends in Cushing’s syndrome, because not all cases of the disease are diagnosed. However, it is important that diagnosis is made as soon as possible, because early diagnosis and treatment of the condition are associated with improved morbidity and mortality rates.

Population-based Studies

There are several population-based studies that have reported the incidence and mortality rates of Cushing’s syndrome in certain populations over a discrete period of time.

A study in Denmark followed 166 patients with Cushing’s syndrome for 11 years, finding an incidence of 2 cases per million population per year. Of the 166 patients, 139 had benign disease. There was a mortality rate of 16.5% in the follow-up period of 8 years, with most deaths occurring in the year after the initial diagnosis, often before the initiation of treatment. The causes of death of patients with Cushing’s syndrome in the study included severe infections, cardiac rupture, stroke and suicide.

A study in Spain found 49 cases of Cushing’s syndrome over a period of 18 years, with an incidence of 2.4 cases per million inhabitants per year and a prevalence of 39.1 cases per million. The standard mortality ratio in this study was 3.8, in addition to an increase in morbidity rates.

Incidence

A low incidence of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome was established by the population-based studies outlined above, corresponding to approximately 2 cases per million. Some studies have an estimated incidence as low as 0.7 people per million.

However, the incidence of subclinical Cushing’s syndrome may be underestimated in certain population groups, such as those with osteoporosis, uncontrolled diabetes mellitus or hypertension. For example, of 90 obese patients with uncontrolled diabetes mellitus in one study, three had Cushing’s syndrome. This yielded a prevalence of 3.3%, which is considerably higher than the incidence reported in the population-based studies. However, these findings should be supported by larger studies.

Females are more likely to be affected by Cushing’s syndrome than males, with a risk ratio of approximately 3:1. There does not appear to be a genetic link that involves an ethnic susceptibility to the condition.

Treatment Outcomes

Surgery is the first-line treatment option for most cases of overt disease and remission is achieved in the majority of patients, approximately 65-85%. However, for up to 1 in 5 patients the condition recurs, and the risk does not appear to level off, even after 20 years of follow-up.

The risk of mortality for individuals with Cushing’s syndrome is estimated to be 2-3 times higher than that of the general population, based on epidemiological studies.

Reviewed by Dr Liji Thomas, MD.

From http://www.news-medical.net/health/Cushings-Syndrome-Epidemiology.aspx

‘Adrenal Fatigue’ Not Always Used Accurately

Dear Dr. Roach: I had apoplexy, a ruptured pituitary tumor, developed panhypopituitarism, then adrenal insufficiency. I am doing fairly well with cortisol replacement, thyroid supplement and oral diabetic medicine.

My problem is exhaustion that comes on very easily. I have other ailments to blame, too — chronic pain from fibromyalgia and tendinitis. I am 67. I am still able to work. Is adrenal fatigue a real issue, and if so, what can be done about it? — S.M.

Answer: The term “adrenal fatigue” is increasingly used, and not always correctly — or, at least, it is used in cases where it’s not clear if that is actually the case. But let me start by discussing what has happened to you. Pituitary apoplexy is bleeding into the pituitary gland, usually into a pituitary tumor, as in your case. This may cause severe headaches and vision changes, and often it prevents the pituitary from making the many important hormones that control the endocrine glands and regulate the body.

For example, without TSH from the pituitary gland, the thyroid won’t release thyroid hormone, and importantly, the adrenal gland can’t make cortisol without the influence of ACTH from the pituitary.

Rather than trying to replace TSH, ACTH and the other pituitary hormones, it is easier to directly replace the hormones made by the adrenal, thyroid and gonads. That’s why you are taking cortisol and thyroid hormone, and why younger women take estrogen and men testosterone. Although there is nothing wrong with your thyroid and adrenal glands, they simply won’t work unless stimulated.

Inadequate adrenal function from any cause leads to profound fatigue, and in the presence of severe stress, such as surgery or major infection, the body’s need for cortisol increases dramatically. Unless enough adrenal hormone is given in response, the result can be an immediate life-threatening condition called an Addisonian crisis.

Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.

From http://www.vnews.com/To-Your-Good-Health–Adrenal-Fatigue–not-Always-Used-Accurately-1802516

Young people with Cushing syndrome may be at higher risk for suicide, depression

Children with Cushing syndrome may be at higher risk for suicide as well as for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions long after their disease has been successfully treated, according to a study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health.

Cushing syndrome results from high levels of the hormone cortisol. Long-term complications of the syndrome include obesity, diabetes, bone fractures, high blood pressure, kidney stones and serious infections. Cushing’s syndrome may be caused by tumors of the adrenal glands or other parts of the body that produce excess cortisol. It also may be caused by a pituitary tumor that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce high cortisol levels. Treatment usually involves stopping excess cortisol production by removing the tumor.

“Our results indicate that physicians who care for young people with Cushing syndrome should screen their patients for depression-related mental illness after the underlying disease has been successfully treated,” said the study’s senior author, Constantine Stratakis, D(med)Sci, director of the Division of Intramural Research at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “Patients may not tell their doctors that they’re feeling depressed, so it’s a good idea for physicians to screen their patients proactively for depression and related conditions.”

Cushing syndrome may affect both adults and children. A recent study estimated that in the United States, there are 8 cases of Cushing syndrome per 1 million people per year.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Pediatrics. They reviewed the case histories of all children and youth treated for Cushing syndrome at NIH from 2003 to 2014, a total of 149 patients. The researchers found that, months after treatment, 9 children (roughly 6 percent) had thoughts of suicide and experienced outbursts of anger and rage, depression, irritability and anxiety. Of these, 7 experienced symptoms within 7 months of their treatment.

Two others began experiencing symptoms at least 48 months after treatment.

The authors noted that children with Cushing syndrome often develop compulsive behaviors and tend to become over-achievers in school. After treatment, however, they then become depressed and anxious. This is in direct contrast to adults with Cushing syndrome, who tend to become depressed and anxious before treatment and gradually overcome these symptoms after treatment.

The authors stated that health care providers might try to prepare children with Cushing syndrome before they undergo treatment, letting them know that their mood may change after surgery and may not improve for months or years. Similarly, providers should consider screening their patients periodically for suicide risk in the years following their treatment.

Source: NIH/Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
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