Acute inflammation is the body’s natural way of fighting infections and injuries as part of the healing process. When you have an injury, blood flow increases as your body instinctively releases white blood cells, proteins, and other inflammatory chemicals to protect the wounded area. This leads to redness, swelling, and pain at the site of injury. The body reacts similarly when you have a virus or cold, but in these instances, the blood cells and inflammatory chemicals are released throughout the whole body rather than to one spot. This type of inflammation is good for you, as it allows your body to heal.
But when inflammation persists, it no longer serves a helpful purpose. This type of inflammation, also referred to as chronic inflammation, occurs when your body consistently acts like it’s under attack, releasing white blood cells indefinitely. In the long term, an elevated white blood cell count can affect other organs such as your heart, lungs, and kidneys. Research has also found a connection between chronic inflammation and other chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Crohn’s disease.
Read on for more information about the causes and symptoms of chronic inflammation and how to prevent or treat it.
Causes and symptoms of chronic inflammation
Several known factors can trigger chronic inflammation:
- Lifestyle factors including obesity, diet, smoking, alcohol use, stress, and sleep disorders
- Untreated injuries or illnesses
- Autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes or lupus, in which the body mistakenly attacks itself
- Long-term exposure to pollution, industrial chemicals, or other toxins
Some individuals with this type of inflammation experience fatigue, fever, and joint and muscle pain. However, while there are clear physical signs of acute inflammation, chronic inflammation does not always have visible symptoms.
Your doctor can help determine if you have chronic inflammation. They will likely ask about your symptoms and perform a physical exam as a first step. They may then order additional tests to detect inflammation. These tests look for various indications of inflammation in your body, but they cannot formally diagnose inflammation or any other health condition. Rather, they provide a more comprehensive picture of your health so that your doctor can recommend the best next steps.
Potential tests your doctor may recommend during this process include a C-reactive protein (CRP) test and/or an erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test. A CRP test identifies your blood levels of CRP, a protein produced in your liver. Chronic and acute inflammation have both been linked to high levels of CRP.
An ESR test examines how quickly your red blood cells sink to the bottom of a test tube, with higher rates of settlement pointing toward more inflammation. Doctors often recommend this test when there is a possibility of high inflammation.
Sometimes these tests may help your doctor diagnose an inflammation-linked condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or type 2 diabetes.
Chronic inflammation and other health conditions
There is a connection between chronic inflammation and many other health conditions. Inflammation can occur directly as the result of rheumatoid arthritis, which is both an autoimmune condition and an inflammatory disease. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks your joints — often in your hands, writs, and knees — which leads to inflammation. There is also a direct link between inflammation and other inflammatory diseases, like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Inflammation has also been linked to heart disease and diabetes, but research into this connection is ongoing. While inflammation is more common in individuals with these health conditions, there is not yet definitive evidence that inflammation by itself directly increases your risk for these conditions.
Inflammation in the walls of your blood vessels has been linked to atherosclerosis, the accumulation of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in your arteries. In the long term, atherosclerosis increases your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Since obesity, smoking, and physical activity are all risk factors for inflammation, heart disease, and diabetes, the overlap of these risk factors likely plays a role in the connection between the conditions. The good news is that a single healthy choice can lower your risk for all three diseases at once.
Treatment and prevention
Your healthcare provider will recommend treatment based on the type of inflammation you have, however not all cases of chronic inflammation require medication.
Two types of medications are commonly used to lower both acute and chronic inflammation: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including ibuprofen (Advil®), aspirin (Bayer®) or naproxen (Aleve®) and oral steroids including prednisone (Deltasone®, Prednicot®), methylprednisolone (Medrol®), and dexamethasone (Decadron®, Dexasone®). Steroid injections can reduce inflammation in a specific joint or muscle and are often used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
If you have an inflammatory disease, your doctor may recommend medications specifically used to treat that disease. Medication classes commonly used to treat inflammatory diseases include:
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate (Rheumatrex®), sulfasalazine (Azulfidine®), and leflunomide (Arava®). These medications can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Statins, a type of medication commonly used to treat high cholesterol. They have anti-inflammatory effects and can lower CRP levels.
- Diabetes medications
You can also fight inflammation simply by what you eat. An anti-inflammatory diet includes antioxidant-rich foods like the following:
- Leafy greens including kale and spinach
- Fatty fish including salmon and tuna
- Cherries, blueberries, oranges, and other fruits
There are also some foods that have been linked to higher levels of inflammation. If you have chronic inflammation, your doctor may suggest limiting your intake of the foods below as part of your treatment plan:
- White bread, pasta, pastries, and other refined carbohydrates
- Soda, fruit juices with added sugar, energy drinks, and other beverages high in sugar
- Red meat and processed meat like hot dogs and sausage
Your partner in health
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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