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What is chronic inflammation? A complete guide

Inflammation is a normal part of your body's immune system response to injuries and infections, and is not always a bad thing. When it’s acute and not dangerous, it's the body’s natural defence against things like viruses and bacteria, etc. and aims to remove these harmful or foreign invaders and heal itself. Without inflammation, wounds and infections would get worse, not better!

First, chemicals from white blood cells are released into the bloodstream or the affected tissue to guard the body from foreign substances. This release of chemicals heightens blood flow to the area of infection or injury, helping to flush the irritant from the body which can lead to warmth and redness. However, the increased number of cells and inflammatory substances can also trigger fluids to leak into the body’s tissues, which causes irritation and swelling. Inflammation can cause temporary pain because swelling pushes on sensitive nerve endings, sending pain signals to the brain. 

Types of inflammation: Chronic vs. Acute

There are two very different types of inflammation, chronic and acute inflammation. 

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is your body’s long-term or delayed defence to injury or disease. This can happen when the cause of the inflammation can't be removed from your body, or when cells from your immune system start behaving abnormally. If left untreated, this inflammatory response can damage your body tissues.

Not all injuries or diseases will cause chronic inflammation. When this stage does occur, it usually starts just as the acute inflammatory stage is ending. This stage can last for days or weeks depending on the injury or disease. 

Acute inflammation 

Acute inflammation is your body’s first defence response to injury or disease and starts shortly after the injury has occurred. It usually only lasts for a couple of days, but may continue for a longer period of time if the reason for the injury or disease persists. For example, acute inflammation caused by an infection can continue as long as the microorganism causing the infection is still in your body. The response is led by the inflammatory immune cells, neutrophils and eosinophils. Acute inflammation can be associated with infections, traumatic injury, autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis), or cancer.

Although acute inflammation is an important part of your body’s defence system, prolonged acute inflammation can cause injury to the tissue involved. These kinds of changes are commonly seen in the skin, mouth, and gut (oesophagus, stomach, small bowel, and colon).

Symptoms of inflammation

Chronic inflammation symptoms

Chronic inflammation often progresses quietly with few independent symptoms. Despite its subtlety, chronic inflammation is a serious threat to your health.

Some signs and symptoms of inflammation that is chronic include:

  • Fatigue

  • Mouth sores

  • Chest pain

  • Abdominal pain

  • Fever

  • Rash

  • Joint pain

Conditions associated with chronic inflammation:

Chronic inflammation is a descriptive term and is not a diagnosis in itself. Chronic inflammation can affect any organ and there are many health conditions that fall into the category of inflammatory diseases such as Coeliac disease, asthma, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Although it might seem scary, inflammation is a perfectly normal part of your body’s immune defence. Problems arise when the inflammatory process goes on for too long and becomes chronic, but there are steps you can take to help avoid this happening.

Acute inflammation symptoms

Acute inflammation often occurs because of an external injury. Signs and symptoms of acute inflammation, which are typically on the skin, include:

  • Pain

  • Redness

  • Swelling

  • Immobility

  • Heat (the affected area may feel warm)

Acute inflammation caused by an infection such as bronchitis, tonsillitis, sinusitis and appendicitis can result in symptoms including: 

  • Fever

  • Nausea

  • Lethargy

  • Fatigue 

  • Irritability

  • Runny nose

  • Sore throat

  • Headache

If acute inflammation is occurring deep inside your body, such as in an internal organ, only some of these signs may be noticeable. Some internal organs, like your lungs for example, don’t have sensory nerve endings nearby so there may not be pain even if your lungs are inflamed.

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