Did you know humans are part dragon? Well, sort of. When your body’s under attack, it fights back with fire. Enter inflammation.

Inflammation is how your immune system reacts to threats and initiates healing. Pretty badass. If an enemy (like bacteria, viruses, and other infectious agents) mounts an invasion, your immune system kicks into gear and fights back.

However, sometimes signals get crossed and the immune system attacks your own body parts causing autoimmune disease.

While essential for healing, too much inflammation contributes to many chronic diseases like:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • cancer
  • diabetes
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • allergic asthma
  • COPD
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • chronic kidney disease
  • inflammatory bowel disease
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Design by Viviana Quevedo; Photograph by Nadine Greeff/Stocksy United

Acute inflammation is a short-term response to infection or injury. And chronic inflammation is long-term and is the result or cause of a chronic health issue.

Acute inflammation: The healing kind

Though not exactly cute, acute inflammation is your friend. If you’re injured, exposed to a toxin, or get an infection, the inflammation response usually leads to:

  • swelling
  • heat and redness due to increased blood flow
  • pain
  • reduced function

Trauma to part of your body releases chemicals that start the inflammation process. White blood cells respond to the inflammation by rebuilding damaged tissue.

The resulting swelling doesn’t feel great, but it helps protect and heal your ailing bits. In the case of infection, you may have a fever and a general unwell feeling, or no symptoms at all.

Acute inflammation starts very quickly after the injury or onset of infection and usually only lasts a few days. Subacute inflammation can last 2 to 6 weeks.

Chronic inflammation: The crappy kind

Chronic inflammation is a physical response to illness or abnormal immune system responses. Chronic inflammation lasts for months or years.

Symptoms of chronic inflammation include:

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Inflammation causes cells to release certain chemicals known as inflammatory markers.

A blood test can help determine if inflammation is present. One option is the C-reactive protein (CRP) test. CRP is made by your liver in response to inflammation. The test can be used to diagnose or monitor serious infections and chronic diseases.

A CRP test does not tell you the source of inflammation. CRP may also be high in people who smoke, are sedentary, or have larger bodies. A high-sensitivity CRP test is used to evaluate your risk of heart disease.

One study showed that more than half of people with very elevated CRP levels were diagnosed with infections. Other diagnoses were inflammatory, rheumatologic (like arthritis), malignancy, or drug reaction.

Inflammation is a totally normal (and helpful!) reaction to injury, infection, and harmful substances. In the short term, it’s a sign that your immune system is working well.

Acute inflammation to the rescue

Acute inflammation is caused by injury, infection, or exposure to irritants. It starts rapidly and lasts only a few days. (Subacute inflammation can last 2 to 6 weeks.) Here are just a few situations that can cause acute inflammation and it’s symptoms:

  • a bug bite or sting (swelling, redness, pain)
  • a cut that becomes infected (redness, heat, swelling)
  • a sinus infection (swelling, pain, fever)
  • a chemical irritant in the eye (redness, swelling, pain)
  • pneumonia (fever, fatigue)

The list of inflammation triggering illness and injury is endless. When infectious invaders or tissue damage happens, it triggers the production of proteins that signal the immune system there’s trouble. Then white blood cells are dispatched to the site of inflammation.

A cascade of signals, cells, and biochemicals create the hallmark symptoms of inflammation: redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function.

Chronic inflammation, the eternal fire

Instead of flaming up to repair damage or fight infection, chronic inflammation smolders, lasting months or years. Here are some things that can cause chronic inflammation:

  • chronic infection
  • long-term exposure to an irritant (like industrial chemicals, pollution, or allergens)
  • autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
  • a genetic defect affecting cells that control inflammation
  • recurring acute inflammation
  • oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction

Some risk factors can mean you’re more likely to face chronic inflammation, such as:

  • increasing age
  • fat tissue
  • consuming saturated fat, trans fats, and refined sugar
  • cigarette smoking
  • low sex hormones
  • stress
  • sleep disorders

The most prevalent diseases related to chronic inflammation are:

  • diabetes
  • cardiovascular disease
  • arthritis and joint diseases
  • allergies
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Studies indicate there’s a connection between immune dysfunction and inflammation and psychiatric disorders — like major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is associated with increased rates of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and autoimmune diseases. People with PTSD have higher markers of inflammation like CRP.

Autoinflammatory diseases cause the immune system to attack your own body instead of viruses, bacteria, infection, or damaged cells. These diseases can cause swelling, fever, rash, or a buildup of blood protein in your organs.

Autoinflammatory diseases include:

  • Familial Mediterranean fever (FMF)
  • Neonatal Onset Multisystem Inflammatory disease (NOMID)
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor Receptor-Associated Periodic Syndrome (TRAPS)
  • Deficiency of the Interleukin-1 Receptor Antagonist (DIRA)
  • Behçet’s disease
  • Chronic Atypical Neutrophilic Dermatosis with Lipodystrophy and Elevated Temperature (CANDLE)
Acute inflammationChronic inflammation
sudden onset after injury or infectionslow onset
ends after a few days or weekslasts months to years
part of the body’s healing processcontributes to disease risk
clear symptoms: pain, heat, swelling, redness, and loss of functionvague symptoms like pain, fatigue, digestive trouble, or a general feeling of being unwell

One of the key symptoms of acute inflammation is pain. It can be caused by trauma to your flesh. Another inflammation symptom, swelling, can cause pain as injured tissue fills with fluid and aggravates nerve endings.

Chronic inflammation may affect joints, or create byproducts that cause tissue damage and chronic pain.

Inflammation doesn’t always require treatment, but when it does, there are steps you can take. A good first step is to have a doctor evaluate the severity and cause of your inflammation.

For acute inflammation, doctors may recommend one or more of these medications:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a class of drugs includes aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. They’re available over the counter, but may also be prescribed in higher doses by your doctor. They relieve the symptoms of inflammation but won’t heal the underlying cause. NSAIDs are not meant to be taken long term.
  • Acetaminophen treats pain but does not reduce inflammation.
  • Corticosteroids contain steroid hormones that can reduce inflammation in conditions like asthma, arthritis, dermatitis, and allergies. They are not for long-term use.
  • Applying ice will reduce acute inflammation due to injury.

Recommended treatments for chronic inflammation tend to include lifestyle and diet changes. These tips may help douse the chronic flames:

  • lose excess weight
  • change your diet if you can (see more on this below)
  • exercise
  • try herbs and supplements with anti-inflammatory properties (also below)

To prevent chronic inflammation, take these steps for better health:

Look into herbs and supplements

A 2016 review of research identified these herbs as potentially beneficial for inflammation:

  • turmeric
  • ginger
  • rosemary
  • borage
  • evening primrose
  • devil’s claw
  • Boswellia serrata
  • rosehip
  • stinging nettle
  • cat’s claw
  • sage
  • blackcurrant
  • avocado
  • oleaster
  • bilberry
  • olive oil
  • hyssop

Studies of these substances have produced mixed results. As always, talk with your healthcare provider about using supplements, and remember supplements are not evaluated for safety or efficacy or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Eating to fight inflammation is basically just like following every other diet for general health.

Here are some of the recommended guidelines for eating to quench the fire:

  • Eat a low glycemic diet (which means avoid refined sugars).
  • Eat less fat, saturated fat, and trans fats (or eat less fatty animal products and avoid highly processed packaged food).
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables (duh).
  • Eat more fiber.
  • Eat nuts.
  • Drink green and black tea (for their anti-inflammatory polyphenols).
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One older study from 2007 found that eating a Mediterranean diet and moderate exercise reduced incidence of high CRP by 72 percent.

Your cheat sheet to a so-called Mediterranean diet is to eat loads of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and nuts. Lean on olive oil as your added fat source, and eat low to moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, poultry, and fish.

Bottom line

If you become ill or injured, inflammation is like the white knight who rides in to start the healing process.

Acute (or short-term) inflammation is a normal immune response. Chronic (or long-term) inflammation could mean you have an underlying health issue or it could lead to feeling chronically unwell while your immune response is out of whack.

A doctor can evaluate the cause of your chronic inflammation and recommend the best treatment or lifestyle adaptations to help your body chill out.