Inflammation: Symptoms, Possible Causes, and Treatment

Medically Reviewed By Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD
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Inflammation is the result of the body protecting itself from infection and healing itself after injury. 

Everyone needs inflammation in their bodies. However, when inflammation lingers for too long or if levels of it are too high, inflammation can be dangerous, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It may contribute Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, asthma, and autoimmune diseases

If you have ongoing inflammation, medication and certain lifestyle practices can help reduce it and prevent inflammatory diseases.

This article will discuss the symptoms and causes of acute and chronic inflammation, how doctors diagnose inflammation, and tips on reducing inflammation.

What is inflammation? 

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Inflammation is usually a natural process that helps the body heal from injuries or infections. Blood flows to the damaged tissue, which supplies essential blood cells and proteins to remove any byproducts or debris. This blood flow naturally causes the area to become swollen, red, warm to the touch, and painful. Your body needs inflammation to heal.

The three broad categories of inflammation are acute, subacute, and chronic.

Acute inflammation

Acute inflammation sends white blood cells to the affected area. This fast response allows your body to heal from injuries and prevent damage from infections. Acute inflammation occurs relatively quickly and may last a few days. 

Subacute inflammation

Experts consider subacute inflammation a condition in which acute inflammation begins evolving into chronic inflammation. This period lasts 2–6 weeks.

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is when your white blood cells react as though the body is constantly injured and trying to heal. You have too much inflammation, or the inflammation remains in your body for too long. Chronic inflammation can last for months or years. 

What are the symptoms of inflammation?

Signs and symptoms can vary between acute and chronic inflammation. 

Acute inflammation 

Signs and symptoms of acute inflammation may develop suddenly and include:

  • discoloring of the area, such as the skin
  • pain
  • warmth
  • swelling

Chronic inflammation 

Chronic inflammation symptoms, which can take longer to develop and involve many areas of the body, include:

What can cause inflammation?

Categories of the many factors that can affect the immune system and may cause inflammation include:

  • Environmental: Pollutants, such as air pollution, asbestos, smoking, and other toxic chemicals, can cause inflammation.
  • Nutritional: Diets high in white bread, pasta, sugary drinks, red meats, fried foods, or alcohol can change your gut health and affect your immune system.
  • Lifestyle and physical: Irregular sleep patterns and lack of exercise can lead to inflammation.
  • Health: Certain conditions, such as infection, obesity, and stress, can lead to inflammation.

How do doctors evaluate inflammation?

If your doctor thinks your symptoms are due to a chronic inflammatory process, they can conduct a blood test to look for certain cells or proteins in your bloodstream. The blood tests are not specific and cannot reveal whether you have acute or chronic inflammation. Your doctor may need to carry out other tests to determine the exact cause of your symptoms. 

Blood tests that help detect inflammation include:

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may request other tests. If your doctor suspects you may have inflammation in your large intestine, they may request an imaging test, such as a colonoscopy. If your doctor thinks you may have inflammation in your brain, they may request an MRI

What are ways to reduce or prevent inflammation?

Treatment for inflammation depends on what is causing it. Medications, diet, and self-care can help reduce or reverse inflammation. The specific regimen may differ for acute versus chronic inflammation.

Medication options 

Doctors may prescribe medications to help reduce inflammation and symptoms when you have chronic inflammation. These may help with certain conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, and may include:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • corticosteroids
  • immunosuppressants
  • biologic drugs that change the way the immune system works and are often prepared with biotechnology

Learn how to take care of acute inflammation from injuries.

Diet and nutrition tips

Certain foods can cause inflammation, and other foods can reduce and even prevent inflammation.

To reduce your likelihood of getting inflammation, limit or stop eating foods such as:

  • white bread
  • white pasta
  • pastries and cakes
  • red meats
  • sugary drinks

To reduce inflammation, choose foods such as:

  • fruits
  • vegetables and leafy greens, such as spinach
  • healthy fats, such as nuts and healthy oils
  • dark chocolate
  • seafood, such as salmon and tuna  

Foods containing certain antioxidants, omega-3s, vitamins, and minerals have anti-inflammatory effects and may help reduce inflammation.

Learn more about the power of food here.

Lifestyle tips 

Exercising regularly and reducing your levels of stress can have anti-inflammatory benefits.

Learn more natural ways to ward off inflammation.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some other questions people often ask about inflammation.

How can you reduce inflammation in the body fast?

Taking NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can reduce pain quickly, even within a few hours for arthritis. However, you may need prescription-strength NSAIDs to reduce inflammation. Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids and stronger anti-inflammatories that are not available over the counter. Talk with your doctor about your diagnosis and treatment plan to reduce inflammation quickly.

What are the five classic signs of inflammation?

The five signs of inflammation are:

  1. redness or flushing
  2. heat
  3. swelling
  4. pain
  5. loss of function

Can fasting reduce inflammation?

According to a 2019 study in the journal Cell, short-term and intermittent fasting may reduce inflammation and improve inflammatory diseases. However, fasting for long periods can cause malnutrition and hunger. Talk with your doctor before restricting or altering your diet. 

Learn more about the benefits of intermittent fasting.

Summary

Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself from injury or disease. Acute inflammation is helpful. Chronic inflammation can lead to disease. The treatment and outcome of inflammation depend on the cause or source.

The table below is an overview of inflammation. 

Acute inflammationChronic inflammation
Cause a sudden injury, trauma, or tissue damageobesity, smoking, toxin exposure, poor diet, lack of sleep, alcohol, atypical amounts of physical activity (too little or too much), and stress 
Onset fastslow
Durationdaysmonths to years 
Symptoms flushing, heat, swelling, pain, loss of functiontiredness, constipation, diarrhea, weight gain, muscle aches, joint pain, rashes, and other possibilities 
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Medical Reviewer: Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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