Neurologists navigate unknown territory during COVID-19 pandemic


Neurologists are offering guidance regarding how COVID-19 may affects patients with neurologic disorders, often based on scientific principles and limited evidence from the current pandemic. Neurologic disorders are among the “underlying medical conditions that may increase the risk of serious COVID-19 for individuals of any age,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Potentially relevant drug interactions, how immunosuppressive medications may influence the risk of COVID-19, and neurologic diseases that may be associated with greater risk are among the questions that experts and groups have addressed.

According to the CDC, neurologic conditions that may heighten the risk of severe COVID-19 include “disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve, and muscle such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy (seizure disorders), stroke, intellectual disability, moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury.” Many patients, however, may not have substantially increased risks, neurologists suggest.

“Patients with conditions that do not affect their swallowing or breathing muscles and in whom the immune system is working normally are not considered to be at increased risk from COVID-19,” according to March 26 guidance from the Association of British Neurologists (ABN). “Milder or moderate forms of many of the commoner neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, are not currently considered to confer increased risk, so long as the breathing and swallowing muscles are functioning well.”

Neurologists should tailor treatment decisions to individual patients, according to the ABN. “Although some neurological conditions or treatments increase the risk of complicated COVID-19, most patients in these groups will overcome the infection,” the association noted.

Interactions with potential COVID-19 treatments

Standard drugs in neurology may interact with potential COVID-19 treatments. For example, “preliminary experience suggests that there is a possible benefit from hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin treatment in COVID-19 infection,” but either of those drugs “may lead to a deterioration in myasthenia gravis,” the ABN notes. “Doctors will have to balance the risks from myasthenia and COVID-19 on a case-by-case basis.” The Liverpool Drug Interactions Group has published tables that describe interactions between potential COVID-19 treatments and anticonvulsants, analgesics, immunosuppressants, and other medication classes.

Many muscle diseases and neuromuscular junction diseases may entail higher risks of complicated COVID-19, the ABN suggested. For patients on immunotherapy, the medication may be a more important consideration for COVID-19 than the underlying disease. Other comorbidities such as hypertension, renal impairment, neutropenia, lymphopenia, liver disease, diabetes mellitus, ischemic heart disease, and lung disease may be important factors, according to the association.

Seizures may not worsen

After the CDC added epilepsy to its list of conditions that entail higher risk of severe COVID-19, M. Scott Perry, MD, medical director of neurology at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Tex., commented on Twitter that “most healthy people with controlled epilepsy [are] probably at no more risk than others.”

“Those treated with steroids or other immunosuppressive drugs are likely higher risk,” Dr. Perry said. “Likewise, patients with other medical comorbidities such as muscle weakness, swallowing or breathing problems, and other complex cases of epilepsy are likely higher risk. Regardless: be responsible, avoid crowds, wash your hands, avoid sick contacts.”

Doctors in Italy, based on small numbers of cases, have found that seizures are not worse in patients with epilepsy and COVID-19, said Dr. Perry. A few children, including several patients with Dravet syndrome, “had uncomplicated illness and seizures were no worse,” he said. “That is reassuring.”

“Until now, there is no evidence of a direct effect of COVID-19 on seizures or epilepsy,” according to the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE). “However, patients may experience worsening of seizures due to systemic illnesses, drug interactions, decreased access to antiseizure medications, and increased stress.”

“In younger children, the fever that accompanies COVID-19 may exacerbate seizures, as might any febrile illness,” according to an American Epilepsy Society (AES) resource for epilepsy clinicians. “The main known elevated risk factors related to COVID-19 are age, respiratory disease, and other chronic medical conditions not related to epilepsy. As for all, people with epilepsy should adhere to the CDC recommendations for reducing risk of infection.” Neurologists should review with patients the importance of treatment adherence, update plans for managing breakthrough seizures, and ensure necessary medications are on hand, according to the AES.

The Epilepsy Foundation created a page with information about COVID-19 for patients with epilepsy and recorded a discussion with epilepsy specialists. DEE-P (Developmental Epileptic Encephalopathy–Project) Connections recorded a webinar about protecting medically complex or immune-suppressed children with epilepsy from COVID-19.


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