Inflammation, broadly speaking, is how your body responds to a stimulus or a germ1. This could be a foreign object, for example, when you get a splinter while working with wood, or it could be a germ2.

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What is Inflammation?

Inflammation begins as soon as the body starts fighting the irritant and may involve many different immune system cells within the body, which release substances called inflammatory mediators3. These control your body’s response to the irritant – your blood vessels dilate (widen), the membranes of the blood vessels become more permeable, additional white blood cells get sent to the area, and you feel pain1,2.

This is all in an effort to eliminate the irritant and start repairing the affected area1. Even the pain you feel plays a role – if a body part feels sore, you will protect it2. The increased amount of blood is why the area becomes swollen, warm and red2. Inflammation is an important part of your body’s immune response that helps you recover from infection and injury, but when it goes on for too long, it can also lead to the development of other diseases3.

Inflammation can be divided into two types2

Acute inflammation

This is your body’s immediate response to an injury or illness. Symptoms quickly become severe and they last for about 48 hours2.

Chronic inflammation

Occurs when the body’s inflammatory response gets dialed up too high or lasts for too long2,4. The chronic inflammatory state that develops can result in a number of diseases, including autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Type-1 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and depression4.

Chronic inflammation is a long-term condition that can last for several months and even years2

Allergic reactions: a type of inflammation

Did you know that having an allergic reaction is a response to inflammation? When you’re exposed to something you’re allergic to, for example, grass, pollen, fish or peanuts, your body produces an acute inflammatory response5. This is often followed by a late-phase reaction that may involve swelling, pain, warmth and redness on the skin, or, in the lungs, excessive mucous secretion and narrowing of the airwaves5. If you’re repeatedly exposed to something you’re allergic to over a long period of time, you can go on to develop chronic allergic inflammation5.

Know the Signs

Acute inflammation

Acute inflammation are immediate and obvious2:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Warmth
  • Loss of function, such as struggling to breathe when you have bronchitis.

Chronic inflammation

Symptoms of chronic inflammation are more subtle4:

  • Body pains
  • Constant fatigue and insomnia
  • Mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Regularly getting infections

Inflammation Triggers

Acute inflammation is triggered by an irritant, which could be a wound, injury or an infection2.

Chronic inflammation can have various causes:

Your body’s defence mechanisms were unable to eliminate the microorganisms causing an infection and they have stuck around, continuing to infect the tissue4.
Prolonged exposure to a low level of irritant that the body can’t eliminate using its usual mechanisms, such as when you breathe in industrial chemicals4.
An autoimmune disorder, where the body mistakenly identifies its own tissue and organs as foreign irritants and launches an inflammation attack against them, for example, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus4.
A defect in the cells that are meant to mediate inflammation and cause it to dial down after the irritant has been effectively eliminated. Your body then remains in a state of inflammation longer than it should4.
Repeated episodes of acute inflammation. Although chronic inflammation doesn’t always get triggered by acute inflammation, it can exist on its own, as is the case with rheumatoid arthritis4.
Imbalances and malfunctions in your cells are causing them to produce more inflammation-causing substances4.
In people who have allergies, persistent exposure to allergens results in chronic allergic inflammation5.

Get Diagnosed

Unlike the visible signs of acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is diagnosed with a blood test4. The pathologist will be looking for elevated levels of proteins and molecules that are typically seen when your body is in a state of inflammation4.

Risk factors for chronic inflammation4:

Age – Levels of inflammatory molecules tend to increase as we age.
Obesity – Studies suggests that fat acts as an organ in the body, secreting inflammatory mediators, which promote inflammation.
Diet – Eating too much saturated fat, trans fats and refined sugar has been linked to higher levels of inflammatory molecules.
Smoking – Increases inflammation and also suppresses the molecules responsible for stopping inflammation.
Stress – Has been linked to an increase in inflammation-causing proteins.
Poor sleep – People who have irregular sleep patterns typically have more inflammation than those with consistent sleep schedules.
Low levels of sex hormones – Hormones like testosterone and oestrogen have been shown to suppress the secretion of inflammatory molecules.

Treating Inflammation

Acute inflammation: You can relieve symptoms with a cold compress to reduce swelling and over-the-counter medication to reduce pain6.

Chronic inflammation: Will usually involve a combination of medical treatment and lifestyle interventions3. Weight loss is one of the most effective treatments4.

Treatment for chronic inflammation includes:

Corticosteroids

Provide rapid relief, but have potentially dangerous side effects when used for a long time or in high dosages3. Often used for asthma5.

Antihistamines

Often used for hay fever5.

Metformin

Reduces the levels of inflammation-causing molecules and helps in the treatment of Type-2 diabetes4.

Statins

Lower the amount of inflammation mediators in the body and the risk of heart attacks4.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs):

Alleviate the pain associated with inflammation, especially in patients with arthritis4.

Herbal supplements

Natural substances such as ginger and turmeric have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, but never take them without first consulting a healthcare provider4.

Lifestyle interventions

Weight loss, diet adjustments and regular exercise have all been shown to lower inflammation4.

Take charge of your health

Diet modification, increased physical activity and regular relaxation and meditative exercises are key for reducing systematic inflammation3.

Diet – Eat less refined sugar, saturated fat and trans-fats3. Eat more complex carbohydrates, fibre, fish, nuts, fresh fruit and veggies3.
Physical activity – People who are more physically active have lower systemic inflammation at rest than those who are sedentary3.
Sleep for longer – Overnight sleep of at least 7 – 8 hours human growth hormone and testosterone, which are necessary for the body to rebuild itself4.
Stop smoking – Cigarette smoke is linked with lower production of anti-inflammatory molecules and inducing inflammation4.
Practise self-care – Deep breathing, meditation prayer, being outside, focusing on the present and mindfulness stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and restore autonomic balance3.
Lose weight – Fat tissue is an endocrine organ and secretes inflammatory mediators4.

Treat acute inflammation with PRICE6

A sprain is when you damage a ligament – the tough connective tissue that connects bones. You will experience symptoms of acute inflammation, including swelling and pain6. See a healthcare provider if the injury is severe, you can’t move it or there are signs of infection6.

Protect

the injured area with a compression device.

Rest

the injured area for up to 72 hours.

Ice

the area with a cold pack as soon as possible after the injury occurred.

Compress

the area with elasticated strapping or bandage, or a lace-up support.

Elevate

the area above the level of your heart.

What it feels like to live with chronic inflammation

I’ve lived with inflammatory illnesses my whole life. I’ve had asthma since I was a toddler, I get bronchitis nearly every year, I have allergies, eczema and little benign skin tumours that I’ve been told are the result of an overactive immune system.

In my late 20s and early 30s I developed a recurring eye condition. I had been to a hydro spa and on my way home my one eye started becoming a little bloodshot. Over the next few days the white of my eye turned a deep red and felt scratchy and very painful. An ophthalmologist diagnosed episcleritis – painful inflammation of the white of the eye. He prescribed cortisone drops, which provided immediate relief from the pain and after a day or two the redness and scratchiness disappeared as well. But over the next five or six years, I had recurrent episodes, at least every few months, but usually more often.

Inflammation of the eyeball is incredibly unpleasant. The first sign was always the light sensitivity. I would feel a sharp, searing pain behind my eye when I looked at a light. Next, my eyeball would start to feel swollen and then the redness would start. When it was at its worst, I would develop scratchy nodules on my eyeball and I would have to wear sunglasses indoors for the pain.

I started noticing patterns. If I was stressed or tired, I seemed more likely to develop inflammation in my eyes. I also seemed to get attacks around the time of my period. Sugary foods and drinks seemed to make it worse. And I noticed I would often get urinary tract infections (UTIs) and joint pains around the same time.

Diseases associated with chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammatory diseases are the leading cause of death in the world4. Serious conditions associated with chronic inflammation include:

  • Arthritis4
  • Asthma3
  • Allergies3
  • Skin conditions, such as psoriasis, acne and eczema5
  • Cardiac arrhythmia3
  • Diabetes3
  • Ulcerative colitis4
  • Multiple sclerosis4
  • Anxiety and depression3
  • Obesity3

References

  1. Galvão, I., et al. Mediators of Inflammation. Immunopharmacology and Inflammation.. (2018)
  2. Ansar, W. & Ghosh, S. Inflammation and Inflammatory Diseases, Markers, and Mediators: Role of CRP in Some Inflammatory Diseases. Biology of C Reactive Protein in Health and Disease.. (2016)
  3. Bennett, J., et al. Inflammation – Nature’s Way to Efficiently Respond to All Types of Challenges: Implications for Understanding and Managing “the Epidemic” of Chronic Diseases. Front. Med. 5. 316. (2018)
  4. Pahwa R, et al. Chronic Inflammation. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. (2021)
  5. Galli, S.J., et al. The Development of Allergic Inflammation. Nature. 454, 7203. 445-454. (2008)
  6. Ivins, D., Acute Ankle sprain: an Update. Am Fam Physician. 74, 10. 1714-20. (2006)

Learn more about other areas of pain.

Learn more about other areas of pain.