Inflammation: What You Need to Know
Medically reviewed by Vincent J. Tavella DVM, MPH – Written by Jamie Elmeron December 19, 2018
What is inflammation?
Inflammation happens in everyone, whether you’re aware of it or not. Your immune system creates inflammation to protect the body from infection, injury, or disease. There are many things you wouldn’t be able to heal from without inflammation.
Sometimes with autoimmune diseases, like certain types of arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, your immune system attacks healthy cells.
Inflammation is classified into two main types:
• Acute inflammation usually occurs for a short (yet often severe) duration. It often resolves in two weeks or less. Symptoms appear quickly. This type restores your body to its state before injury or illness.
• Chronic inflammation is slower and generally less severe form of inflammation. It typically lasts longer than six weeks. It can occur even when there’s no injury, and it doesn’t always end when the illness or injury is healed. Chronic inflammation has been linked to autoimmune disorders and even prolonged stress.
Symptoms of inflammation
5 SIGNS OF INFLAMMATION
• Loss of function
The specific symptoms you have depend on where in your body the inflammation is and what’s causing it.
Long-term inflammation can lead to a number of symptoms and affect your body in many ways. Common symptoms of chronic inflammation can include:
• Body pain
• Constant fatigue and insomnia
• Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders
• Gastrointestinal issues, like constipation, diarrhea and acid reflux
• Weight gain
• Frequent infections
Symptoms of common inflammatory conditions
Symptoms can also vary depending on the condition that has an inflammatory component.
For example, in some autoimmune conditions, your immune system affects your skin, leading to rashes. In other types, it attacks specific glands, which affect hormone levels in the body.
In rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks your joints. You may experience:
• Joint pain, swelling, stiffness, or loss of joint function
• Numbness and tingling
• Limited range of motion
In inflammatory bowel disease, inflammation occurs in the digestive tract. Some common symptoms include:
• Stomach pain, cramping, or bloating
• Weight loss and anemia
• Bleeding ulcers
In multiple sclerosis, your body attacks the myelin sheath.
This is the protective covering of nerve cells. You may experience:
• Numbness and tingling of the arms, legs or one side of the face
• Balance problems
• Double vision, blurry vision, or partial vision loss
• Cognitive problems, like brain fog
Causes of inflammation
Many factors can lead to inflammation, such as
• Chronic and acute conditions
• Certain medications
• Exposure to irritants or foreign materials your body can’t easily eliminate
Recurrent episodes of acute inflammation can also lead to a chronic inflammatory response.
There are also certain types of foods that can cause or worsen inflammation in people with autoimmune disorders.
These foods include:
• Refined carbohydrates
• Processed meats
• Trans fats
How is inflammation diagnosed?
There’s no single test can diagnose inflammation or conditions that cause it. Instead, based on your symptoms, your doctor may give you any of the tests below to make a diagnosis.
There are a few so-called markers that help diagnose inflammation in the body. However, these markers are nonspecific, meaning that abnormal levels can show that something is wrong, but not what is wrong.
Serum protein electrophoresis (SPE)
SPE is considered the best way to confirm chronic inflammation. It measures certain proteins in the liquid part of the blood to identify any issues. Too much or too little of these proteins can point to inflammation and markers for other conditions.
C-reactive protein (CRP)
CRP is naturally produced in the liver in response to inflammation. A high level of CRP in your blood can occur due to inflammatory conditions.
While this test is very sensitive for inflammation, it doesn’t help differentiate between acute and chronic inflammation, since CRP will be elevated during both. High levels combined with certain symptoms can help your doctor make a diagnosis.
Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)
The ESR test is sometimes called a sedimentation rate test. This test indirectly measures inflammation by measuring the rate at which red blood cells sink in a tube of blood. The quicker they sink, the more likely you’re experiencing inflammation.
The ESR is rarely performed alone, as it doesn’t help pinpoint specific causes of inflammation. Instead, it can help your doctor identify that inflammation is occurring. It can also help them monitor your condition.
This test measures the thickness of blood. Inflammation or infection can thicken plasma.
Other blood tests
If your doctor believes the inflammation is due to viruses or bacteria, they may perform other specific tests. In this case, your doctor can discuss what to expect with you.
Other diagnostic tests
If you have certain symptoms—for instance, chronic diarrhea or numbness on one side of your face—your doctor may request an imaging test to check certain parts of the body or brain. MRI’s and X-rays are commonly used.
To diagnose inflammatory gastrointestinal conditions, your doctor may perform a procedure to see inside parts of the digestive tract. These tests can include:
• Upper endoscopy
Home remedies to reduce inflammation
Sometimes, fighting inflammation can be as simple as changing up your diet. By avoiding sugar, trans fats, and processed foods. You can put yourself on the path to feeling better.
• Berries and cherries
• Fatty fish, like salmon or mackerel
• Green tea
• Mushrooms, like Portobello and shiitake
• Spices, like turmeric, ginger, and clove
Check out our guide on how to follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
You can further help reduce inflammation by doing the following:
• Take supplements. Your doctor can help you decide which one is best and safest for you.
• Use hot or cold therapy for physical injuries to reduce selling and discomfort.
• Exercise more often than not.
• Manage and reduce your stress levels.
• Quit smoking.
• Treat and manage preexisting conditions.
Other treatment options for inflammation
If your inflammation is due to an underlying autoimmune condition, your treatment options will vary.
For general symptoms of inflammation, your doctor may recommend several options:
NSAIDs and aspirin
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are usually the first line of defense in treating short-term pain and inflammation. Most can be bought over the counter.
Common NSAIDs include:
• Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Midol)
• Naproxen (Aleve)
Prescription varieties also exist, such as diclofenac, that your doctor may prescribe when treating acute inflammation or certain conditions.
NSAIDs can be very effective for inflammation, but there are some interactions and side effects that occur, especially with long-term use. Be sure to tell your doctor about other medications you’re taking and if you have any side effects while taking an NSAID.
Corticosteroids are a type of steroid commonly used to treat swelling and inflammation as well as allergic reactions.
Corticosteroids typically come as either a nasal spray or oral tablet.
Follow up with your doctor while taking corticosteroids. Long-term use can cause side effects, and certain interactions can occur.
Topical analgesics and other creams
Topical analgesics are typically used for acute or chronic pain. They may have less side effects than an oral counterpart.
Topical creams and products can contain different medications. Some are prescription only, so it’s best to get advice from your doctor. This is especially the case if you’re treating long-term inflammation, like with arthritis.
Some topical contain an NSAID like diclofenac or ibuprofen. This can be helpful for people with inflammation and pain in a specific body part.
Other topical creams may contain natural ingredients that have some evidence of anti-inflammatory properties.
Make sure you don’t use a topical cream that only works for pain, such as capsaicin.
Inflammation is a normal and natural part of your body’s immune response. Yet, long-term or chronic inflammation can lead to damaging effects. It seems to be associated more often with autoimmune disorders.
Acute inflammation is a normal part of the healing process and may occur when you’re experiencing a sore throat or even a small cut on your skin. Acute inflammation should go away within a few days, unless it’s left untreated.
If you’re experiencing any signs of long-term inflammation, make an appointment with your doctor. They can run some tests and review your symptoms to see if you need treatment for any underlying conditions.