Worried About Inflammation? Here’s What You Need to Know

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
© Sam Burton / Stocksy United

Your friends are discussing the harms of inflammation and talking up popular anti-inflammation diets — but is there any truth to the trend?

Well, sort of.

Chronic (long-term) inflammation does harm your body, but this isn’t true of all types of inflammation (and a change in diet is only one aspect in reducing inflammation).

So, when is inflammation OK and when should you be concerned? And how does diet play into all this?

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is a function of your immune system that helps you respond to injury, infection and irritants. This means it helps with everything from healing cuts and scrapes to fighting off the common cold.  

During acute (short-term) inflammation, your blood vessels widen and leak fluid into the affected tissue, causing the area to swell. White blood cells are sent to the affected area, where they surround and destroy the invader. Once the infection is eliminated, the inflammation subsides.  

“Acute inflammation is usually short lived,” says Dr. Anna Lang, a clinical assistant professor at the UW School of Medicine who sees patients at the Allergy Clinic at Eastside Specialty Center. “It’s the appropriate response to an irritant. When your body senses the threat is gone, there’s a mechanism in place to return your body to its baseline.” 

However, there are cases in which inflammation becomes chronic and persists for months to years, and this takes a toll on your body. In these cases, inflammation can damage your cells, tissues and organs.  

Chronic inflammation contributes to various diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders. And research shows chronic inflammatory diseases contribute to more than half of deaths worldwide — considered the most significant cause of death across the globe.  

How can you tell the difference between acute and chronic inflammation? 

There are three distinct differences between acute inflammation that’s a healthy part of your immune response and unhealthy chronic inflammation that is associated with disease: duration, cause and symptoms. 

Acute inflammation will only last a couple days to weeks, whereas chronic inflammation lasts months to years.  

Causes of acute inflammation include exposure to bacteria, fungi, a foreign object or environmental toxins, whereas chronic inflammation is caused by consistent exposure to toxins or pollution, autoimmune disorders,genetic factors, or an inability to return to baseline after an acute inflammation. 

As for symptoms, there are some telling differences. 

“Classic signs of acute inflammation include redness, swelling and the spot being warm to the touch,” Lang says. 

Acute inflammation tends to be a bit painful, causing a throbbing or pinching sensation at the site of inflammation. In cases like the common cold, you might also have a fever, muscle stiffness, or aches and pains. And if you’ve ever dealt with an ingrown toenail or sore throat, you’ve experienced acute inflammation in all its red, swollen glory.  

Symptoms of chronic inflammation tend to be less noticeable, harder to identify and may vary based on associated conditions. 

For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, you might experience chronic inflammation in your joints; while if you have asthma, you may develop scarring or fibrosis due to inflammation, Lang says. Other symptoms of chronic inflammation include abdominal or chest pain, fever and fatigue.  

Long story short? If you’re experiencing short-term redness, sensitivity or swelling due to a cold or cut, you’re dealing with acute inflammation, which should heal soon on its own.  

If you have an underlying condition or your inflammation lasts longer than a couple weeks, it’s best to set up an appointment with your doctor. 

How do you treat chronic inflammation? 

Since inflammation is the body’s response to a perceived danger (including infection, irritants or underlying illness), treatment is targeted at the root cause, Lang says.  

“There are specific medications that we use based on what is causing the inflammation to begin with,” she explains.  

This means if you’re experiencing chronic inflammation, your doctor will prescribe medication to address the specific chemicals causing your inflammation, be it from allergies or a chronic disease.  

You can also help reduce inflammation by avoiding substances that irritate your body and increase inflammation, like cigarettes and alcohol. Though easier said than done, reducing stress will also help bring down inflammation. 

“I would recommend if somebody were concerned to talk to their doctor. Whether or not treatment is needed is dependent on what condition they may or may not have,” Lang says.  

Does the anti-inflammatory diet help reduce chronic inflammation?  

Yes — though the degree to which it reduces inflammation is still up for debate. 

The rules of the anti-inflammatory diet are pretty straightforward: You aim to eat foods that have been shown to reduce inflammation and avoid foods that increase inflammation. This means eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and fish, while reducing your intake of red meat and processed foods. 

While Lang is in favor of eating nutritious foods, she doesn’t specifically counsel patients with inflammation to try to adopt an anti-inflammatory diet and instead focuses on medications that treat the underlying cause.  

Anne Linge, a registered dietitian who sees patients at the Nutrition Clinic at University of Washington Medical Center – Roosevelt, however, does recommend the anti-inflammatory diet as an additional tool to boost your health.   

“It’s pretty amazing when people start changing their diet. Often they say some of the pain may be reduced or goes away. We do see that the anti-inflammatory diet does help for some people,” she says.   

Studies have found the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced inflammation, as well as reduced risk of associated cardiovascular diseases. While it’s largely agreed that nutrition plays a role in modulating inflammation, scientists also note more research is needed to understand the link between diet and inflammation.  

“Of course, everyone is an individual and the effectiveness of the anti-inflammation diet depends on what causes the underlying problem. But it’s not going cause harm to talk to your doctor or dietitian about changing your diet,” Linge says. 
So, where does this leave you?  

Eating nutritious food helps your overall health and can decrease inflammation, so if you want to join friends who’ve adopted the Mediterranean or MIND diet, more power to you. Just know the diet isn’t a cure-all and it shouldn’t replace seeing your doctor if you have concerns about inflammation.