What Is Inflammation?

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A person hold their hands to their ankle, which is red

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Inflammation is the immune system’s natural response to harmful substances that are in the body. The harmful substances can be in the form of germs like viruses or bacteria, toxic compounds, foreign objects, or damaged cells.

The immune system reacts by trying to remove these harmful substances and start the healing process. During the process of inflammation, the body releases chemicals that trigger an immune response to fight infections or heal damaged tissue.

Inflammation can be short-term, causing symptoms like redness or swelling. Inflammation can also last for months or even years. When that happens, the inflammation can lead to disease or other health complications. This type of inflammation, known as chronic inflammation, is linked to conditions like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease.

Types of Inflammation

In general, the goal of inflammation is to get the body back to its normal state before injury or infection. Inflammation can be acute, subacute, or chronic.

Acute Inflammation

Acute inflammation is an immediate, controlled inflammatory response. It is short-term and lasts for a few days. Acute inflammation typically happens in response to tissue damage from injury, infection, or exposure to harmful substances or chemicals.

General signs and symptoms of acute inflammation include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Heat
  • Loss of function (like not being able to properly move an inflamed joint)

Subacute Inflammation

Subacute inflammation is the period between acute and chronic inflammation. It can last for two to six weeks. If acute inflammation does not go away after six weeks, it will lead to a chronic form of inflammation.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a slow-developing, long-term inflammation that can last for several months to years. In this type of inflammation, the inflammatory process can even begin when there is no injury. The inflammation process also does not end.

The reason why inflammation continues is not always known or clear. However, chronic inflammation may be due to:

  • Infections that do not go away
  • Abnormal immune responses to normal bodily tissues
  • Recurrent acute inflammation
  • Exposure to chemicals that cannot be eliminated from the body

Symptoms of chronic inflammation are a bit different from the symptoms of acute inflammation. Common signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation include:

What Causes Inflammation?

Inflammation is the body’s response to harmful substances. Many types of substances can cause inflammation, but the most common types are:

  • Infection due to germs such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi
  • Injuries like a cut, scrape, or wound
  • Damage to the body from a foreign object, like a splinter or thorn in your finger
  • Effects of toxic compounds, chemicals, or radiation

When your body is exposed to harmful substances, immune system cells release chemicals known as inflammatory mediators. These include two important hormones: bradykinin and histamine.

These hormones are released and cause small blood vessels to widen. The widening of blood vessels allows for more blood to get to the affected tissue. This is why inflamed areas are red and hot to the touch.

The increased blood flow to the area allows for more inflammatory mediators to get to the affected tissue and start the healing process. The hormones also trigger the nerves to send pain signals to the brain. If the inflammation is painful, then you are more likely to physically protect the affected area from more damage.

During the inflammatory process, bradykinin and histamine make it easier for immune system cells to signal more cells to the affected tissue. The rush of more immune system cells causes more fluids to enter the affected area, leading to swelling. The swelling goes down when the fluid leaves the affected area.

How Does Inflammation Impact Your Health?

Although inflammation is a normal bodily response, it isn’t always helpful. In certain cases, the immune system attacks and destroys healthy cells or tissues by mistake. This type of inflammation is harmful and can result in chronic inflammatory disease.

Chronic inflammatory diseases can last for years or a lifetime. Chronic inflammation is related to a variety of health conditions, including:

Over time, chronic inflammation can damage DNA and increase a person’s risk of cancer. For example, a person living with inflammatory bowel disease has an increased risk of developing colon cancer.

How Can You Treat Inflammation?

Acute inflammation is often part of the healing process and does not require treatment. If you have chronic inflammation, however, your healthcare provider may recommend treatment based on your health condition and personal medical history. Types of medications used to treat inflammation include: 

  • Metformin, a drug to manage type 2 diabetes
  • Statins, drugs that lower cholesterol
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Aleve (naproxen), Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen), and aspirin
  • Glucocorticoids, a group of steroid hormones used in many inflammatory and autoimmune diseases
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) such as biologics or Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors

Keep in mind that inflammation itself is not a specific health condition. Chronic inflammation can be a sign of many health conditions. Along with your symptoms and other parts of your medical history, your healthcare provider will use lab tests to help diagnose a health condition and start proper teratment.

Can You Prevent Inflammation?

Research suggests a variety of environmental factors play a role in chronic inflammation. Doing the following can limit your inflammation triggers and, in turn, may reduce inflammation:

  • Limit exposure to toxic chemicals.
  • Quit smoking and drinking alcohol.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Create a sleep routine to limit disruptive sleep patterns.
  • Engage in exercise or physical activity that you enjoy based on discussions with your healthcare provider.

Other ways to reduce inflammation are related to nutrition and maintaining a well-balanced diet. This includes:

  • Limiting consumption of inflammatory-promoting foods such as sodas, refined carbohydrates, or fructose corn syrup
  • Reducing intake of processed or packaged foods that contain trans fats such as processed seed and vegetable oils
  • Eating more anti-inflammatory foods and vegetables (blueberries, apples, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower)
  • Eating more foods rich in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients (magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, and selenium)

A Quick Review

Inflammation plays an important role in defending the body from further injury and infection. Inflammation is a vital process that keeps humans healthy. However, too much inflammation can be damaging to our health. 

Inflammation that lasts too long can have harmful effects, leading to health complications and chronic inflammatory diseases. A variety of medications are available to treat certain inflammatory conditions. 

If you are worried about your inflammation and possible triggers, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to reduce your risk. They may recommend changes to certain behaviors like improving your sleep quality, maintaining a well-balanced diet, and limiting exposure to toxic chemicals.

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7 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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