Diseases With Chronic Inflammation and How to Treat Them
When something such as an injury, infection, or disease causes damage to your body, your body responds with a natural healing response called inflammation. This involves increasing blood flow to the affected area and releasing certain chemicals, proteins, and antibodies. These substances trigger your immune system to act, for example, by sending white blood cells to the area to fight inflammation and infection. Therefore, inflammation is the body’s defense mechanism. The inflammation process usually lasts for a few hours to a few days until the threat is resolved. However, sometimes, you can develop chronic inflammatory diseases in which the inflammatory response can last for months, even years.
Please continue reading to understand the differences between acute inflammation and chronic inflammation, and learn about some acute and chronic diseases in which inflammation plays a major role.
What’s the difference between acute and chronic inflammation?
Acute inflammation is a short-term response, for example, if you have a cut on your finger or a viral flu. Your body releases chemicals and sends inflammatory cells to help heal the cut or fight the infection. Signs and symptoms of acute inflammation can include flushing, redness, pain, tenderness, swelling, and warmth. These symptoms typically last a few days. Subacute inflammation can last for up to 6 weeks.
Chronic inflammation is a longer-term response that occurs even without any external threat. A good example of chronic inflammatory disease is rheumatoid arthritis. This is an autoimmune disorder and inflammatory disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints, causing pain, inflammation, and joint damage. You can think of chronic inflammation as a situation when the body’s inflammatory response is triggered indefinitely. Chronic inflammation symptoms can be harder to identify because they are non-specific, such as fatigue, fever, chest pain, abdominal pain, joint pain, skin rash, weight gain, diarrhea, constipation, anxiety, and depression. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and linger for months or even years.
What are some diseases or conditions in which there is chronic inflammation?
Chronic inflammation plays a role in many chronic diseases, some of which are described below.
- Rheumatoid arthritis and Psoriatic arthritis: These are autoimmune diseases in which a faulty immune system leads to a persistent local inflammatory response in the joints.
- Allergic asthma: This is a chronic inflammatory disorder in which an abnormal immune response leads to inflammation in the airways in the lungs.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): This is a chronic lung disease in which there is a long-lasting inflammatory response to inhaled irritants.
- Heart disease and Stroke: Studies show a strong association between chronic low-level inflammation and cardiovascular disease, including atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart attack, and stroke.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): This is a group of chronic inflammatory diseases that include ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, in which there is long-lasting inflammation in the lining of the digestive tract.
- Diabetes: This is a chronic inflammatory disease in which immune cells infiltrate the pancreas, the organ that makes insulin (the hormone responsible for controlling blood sugar levels).
- Chronic kidney disease (CKD): Low-level inflammation is commonly seen in patients with CKD (impaired kidney function).
- Cancer: Chronic low-grade inflammation is present in many types of cancers.
- Alzheimer's disease: Chronic low levels of inflammation in the central nervous system are linked to dementia and cognitive decline.
How can you tell that you have acute inflammation or chronic inflammation?
You can tell you have acute inflammation from signs and symptoms such as redness, pain, and swelling at the injury site. It is harder to tell if you have chronic inflammation because the symptoms are less specific. However, doctors can use blood tests to measure inflammation. Certain substances are present at higher levels in the body when inflammation is present - these are called inflammatory biomarkers. Examples include C-reactive protein (CRP), fibrinogen, and pro-inflammatory cytokines like TNF-alpha, interleukin-1 beta, and interleukin-6. Serum protein electrophoresis (SPE), a test that measures protein and antibody levels, can also be helpful.
Keep in mind that inflammatory markers levels can be higher due to other reasons, such as age, obesity, diet, exercise, etc. Also, markers like C-reactive protein can be elevated in both acute and chronic inflammation.
What is the fastest way to cure chronic inflammation?
Acute inflammation is a natural and important part of the healing process. But when inflammation becomes long-term, you need to try and control it to prevent damage to healthy tissue. However, it is very important to know the underlying cause in order to administer a specific treatment. Some of the treatment options to fight inflammation and treat chronic inflammatory diseases include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These include over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), and naproxen (Aleve) that reduce inflammation and pain.
- Corticosteroids: These are steroid hormones that suppress the immune system and decrease inflammation.
- Supplements and Spices: Certain supplements and spices such as fish oil, omega 3 fatty acids, ginger, garlic, curcumin, and turmeric are believed to have anti-inflammatory activity, but more research is needed.
- Lifestyle changes: Diet, exercise, and losing weight (if recommended by a healthcare provider) can help to lower inflammation in the body.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
Some foods rich in anti-inflammatory molecules like antioxidants and polyphenols may have beneficial anti-inflammatory effects. These foods include fruits (oranges, cherries, blueberries), nuts, tomatoes, spinach, kale, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), and olive oil. A Mediterranean diet, which is widely recognized as one of the healthiest diets in the world, includes many of these anti-inflammatory foods and can help reduce chronic inflammation or systemic inflammation. Studies have shown that people who eat this diet tend to have lower inflammatory markers.
Certain foods are avoidable or should be consumed in limited amounts if you have chronic inflammatory diseases. These include refined carbohydrates (white flour, white bread, white rice), processed meats (sausages, hot dogs), trans fats, and fried foods.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are often all that’s needed for pain relief when you have acute inflammation. On the other hand, chronic inflammation is linked to several serious diseases, including heart disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and more.
A healthy diet, regular exercise, and supplements can help manage chronic inflammation long-term. However, lifestyle changes may not be enough if you have severe symptoms of inflammatory conditions or autoimmune disorders. Your doctor may order tests to diagnose inflammation. If you are diagnosed with serious inflammatory conditions, you may need medications to relieve symptoms and prevent long-term organ damage.