What is inflammation?
When your body encounters an offending agent (like viruses, bacteria or toxic chemicals) or suffers an injury, it activates your immune system. Your immune system sends out its first responders: inflammatory cells and cytokines (substances that stimulate more inflammatory cells).
These cells begin an inflammatory response to trap bacteria and other offending agents or start healing injured tissue. The result can be pain, swelling, bruising or redness. But inflammation also affects body systems you can’t see.
What is the difference between acute inflammation and chronic inflammation?
There are two types of inflammation:
- Acute inflammation: The response to sudden body damage, such as cutting your finger. To heal the cut, your body sends inflammatory cells to the injury. These cells start the healing process.
- Chronic inflammation: Your body continues sending inflammatory cells even when there is no outside danger. For example, in rheumatoid arthritis inflammatory cells and substances attack joint tissues leading to an inflammation that comes and goes and can cause severe damage to joints with pain and deformities.
What are the symptoms of acute and chronic inflammation?
Acute inflammation may cause:
- Flushed skin at the site of the injury.
- Pain or tenderness.
Chronic inflammation symptoms may be harder to spot than acute inflammation symptoms. Signs of chronic inflammation can include:
- Abdominal pain.
- Chest pain.
- Fatigue. (example: systemic lupus)
- Fever. (example: tuberculosis)
- Joint pain or stiffness. (example: rheumatoid arthritis)
- Mouth sores. (example: HIV infection)
- Skin rash. (example: psoriasis)
What conditions are associated with chronic inflammation?
Chronic inflammation is involved in the disease process of many conditions, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease.
- Heart disease.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and ankylosing spondylitis (AS).
- Type 2 diabetes.
What are the most common causes of inflammation?
The most common reasons for chronic inflammation include:
- Autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, where your body attacks healthy tissue.
- Exposure to toxins, like pollution or industrial chemicals.
- Untreated acute inflammation, such as from an infection or injury.
Some lifestyle factors also contribute to inflammation in the body. You may be more likely to develop chronic inflammation if you:
- Drink alcohol in excess.
- Have a high body mass index (BMI) that falls within the ranges for obesity, unless that is a result of being very muscular.
- Exercise at your maximum intensity too frequently, or you don’t exercise enough.
- Experience chronic stress.
Care and Treatment
How is inflammation treated?
Inflammation does not always require treatment. For acute inflammation, rest, ice and good wound care often relieve the discomfort in a few days.
If you have chronic inflammation, your healthcare provider may recommend:
- Supplements: Certain vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D) and supplements (zinc) may reduce inflammation and enhance repair. For example, your healthcare provider may prescribe a fish oil supplement or vitamin(s). Or you may use spices with anti-inflammatory properties, such as turmeric, ginger or garlic.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These over-the-counter medicines lower inflammation. Your healthcare provider may recommend ibuprofen (Advil®), aspirin (Bayer®) or naproxen (Aleve®).
- Steroid injections: Corticosteroid shots decrease inflammation at a specific joint or muscle. For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis that affects your back, your healthcare provider may give a steroid shot in your spine. You should not have more than three to four steroid injections in the same body part per year.
What can I do at home for inflammation treatment?
You may choose to follow an anti-inflammatory diet. Some research shows that people who follow a Mediterranean diet have lower levels of inflammation in their bodies.
You may choose to eat more foods that have anti-inflammatory properties, such as:
- Oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or sardines.
- Leafy greens like spinach and kale.
- Olive oil.
Eating too much of certain foods may increase inflammation. If you have chronic inflammation, you may feel better if you avoid:
- Fried foods, including many fast food items.
- Cured meats with nitrates, such as hot dogs.
- Highly refined oils and trans fats.
- Refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, pastries or white bread.
How can I prevent inflammation?
You may decrease your risk of chronic inflammation by developing healthy lifestyle habits. Some of these habits include:
- Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Avoiding or quitting smoking.
- Exercising three to five times per week at least (daily exercise is best).
- Limiting your alcohol intake (maximum 2 ounces per day).
- Managing stress with healthy tools such as meditation or journaling.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call the doctor about inflammation?
Check in with your healthcare provider if you experience a worrisome injury. Also talk with your provider if you have ongoing pain, swelling, stiffness or other symptoms. A healthcare expert can narrow down the cause and find ways to help you feel better.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Inflammation is an essential part of your body’s healing process. It occurs when inflammatory cells travel to the place of an injury or foreign body like bacteria. If inflammatory cells stay too long, it may lead to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a symptom of other health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Your healthcare provider may recommend medication or at-home management. You can reduce inflammation by eating anti-inflammatory foods and managing stress.
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