When you think of inflammation, do you picture the swelling and redness that accompany an injury or infection? If so, you’d be right. But there’s another, more insidious kind of inflammation — one that’s harder to notice and harmful to your health.

You’ve almost certainly heard the phrase: chronic inflammation. But many of us have a hazy understanding of what it means.

Simply put, this ongoing immune-system reaction can be a symptom of autoimmune and other serious illnesses. But it also plays a role in the disease process of many life-threatening conditions.

In fact, more than 50% of all deaths worldwide are attributed to chronic inflammatory diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke and diabetes.

Ketan Amin
Dr. Ketan Amin

“Inflammation that’s not specifically from an infection or injury often doesn’t manifest into a lot of clear symptoms,” said Dr. Ketan Amin, a physician with Novant Health Presbyterian Internal Medicine. “It just kind of smolders in the background.”

That’s why it’s so important to know the signs of chronic inflammation and what to do if you notice them. And rest assured, you are not powerless against chronic inflammation. Keep reading for some easy things you can do to prevent it.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is part of our natural healing process. When our bodies are faced with injury, illness or harmful toxins, our immune systems send inflammatory cells and substances to defend themselves and jump-start the healing process.

There are two types of inflammation:

  • Acute inflammation is the rapid immune-system defense response that causes redness and swelling around a cut or in a sore throat. Intended to trap and negate bacteria, viruses or toxic chemicals, acute inflammation seldom lasts more than two weeks.
  • Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, occurs when the body starts or continues sending out inflammatory cells and substances, even though there is no infection or injury. Because this happens internally, the signs of chronic inflammation are subtler, and can increase gradually over a long period.

Why is chronic inflammation dangerous?

Because the signs are difficult to spot, many people don’t find out chronic inflammation is a problem for them until they are diagnosed with a serious illness.

“They may not even realize they have an inflammatory condition, because it's a subtle change that occurs over weeks, months and even years,” Amin said. “So they’re just dealing with the symptoms, like fatigue, every day — and, day after day, it gets a little bit worse.”

Left unaddressed, chronic inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs, and may cause internal scarring, tissue death and damage to the DNA in previously healthy cells. Ultimately, this can lead to the development of potentially disabling or life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer or Type-2 diabetes.

What causes chronic inflammation?

In addition to contributing to the development of illness, chronic inflammation can also be a symptom — in autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, for example.

It can also result from untreated injuries or illnesses, or from exposure to industrial chemicals, pollutants and other environmental toxins.

Certain lifestyle factors may also make you more prone to developing chronic inflammation that can lead to disease, including:

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  • Eating a diet high in added sugars, refined carbohydrates, processed or fried foods and unhealthy fats.
  • Drinking alcohol in excess (more than one or two servings a day) or smoking cigarettes.
  • Being obese (fat tissues release inflammatory substances).
  • Living with chronic stress, including social stressors like isolation, rejection and loss.
  • Having irregular sleep patterns.

Unfortunately, simply aging can put us at risk of increased chronic inflammation, possibly due to a lifetime’s exposure to pollutants and toxins, or an increase in visceral (belly) fat.

“Some level of baseline inflammation is unavoidable as you age, but it can be reduced in otherwise healthy individuals,” Amin said. “If you follow certain healthy life strategies, (like those below,) then you’ll likely be better off than those who don’t.”

How can you tell if you have chronic inflammation?

Because it occurs internally, the symptoms may not be noticeable at first. Some of the most common signs of chronic inflammation include:

  • Body discomfort, including joint stiffness, tendonitis and muscle pain.
  • Sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea and persistent fatigue.
  • Weight gain or unexplained weight loss.
  • Skin rashes like psoriasis and frequent infections (viruses, etc.).
  • Abdominal pain, acid reflux and other digestive system issues.
  • Unexplained fever.
  • Mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.

“If these symptoms sound familiar, and you feel like you may be suffering from chronic inflammation, it’s a good idea to talk about it with your doctor,” Amin said. “There may be an underlying cause that needs to be addressed.”

How is it treated?

If you have ongoing pain, fatigue or other worrisome symptoms, your doctor can help you determine what’s causing them, and may recommend a variety of treatments, including:

  • Shots of corticosteroids, which are effective at targeting specific problem areas like painful joints.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), which are available over the counter (ibuprofen, naproxen sodium) or by prescription.
  • Vitamins and other supplements, such as vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc or fish oil.
  • Anti-inflammatory supplements. “Turmeric has been known for its anti-inflammatory effects for centuries — I take it every day,” Amin said. “Garlic is another good one. And capsaicin, from cayenne, can be used on joints externally to reduce inflammation and pain.”

Long-term use of NSAIDS and corticosteroids has been associated with health risks. So always check with your health care provider before taking these or other medicines or supplements.

Eight ways to prevent chronic inflammation

Knowing how harmful chronic inflammation can be to your health is important. But even more critical is understanding that you can take steps to prevent it. Here are eight evidence-based ideas Amin suggests to help you get started:

  1. Address your stress. Some helpful alternatives include yoga, mindfulness meditation and journaling.
  2. Have a cuppa. Both green and black tea contain substances called polyphenols which have been shown to reduce inflammation.
  3. Book a massage or acupuncture treatment. Research suggests that both massage and acupuncture can help reduce inflammation and (a nice bonus!) provide pain relief.
  4. Avoid smoking and drink alcohol in moderation. Moderate alcohol use generally means two drinks or less per day for men, and no more than one a day for women.
  5. Embrace movement. Regular exercise (at least three to five times a week) not only helps keep you strong and fit — studies show it also reduces inflammation.
  6. Opt for anti-inflammatory foods. The Mediterranean diet includes many foods with anti-inflammatory properties, including oily fish (salmon, sardines), colorful produce, whole grains and healthy fats.
  7. Consider intermittent fasting — with your doctor’s approval, of course! Research shows intermittent fasting can help decrease inflammation even if you don’t lose weight.
  8. Lose weight. According to the National Institutes of Health, losing weight is the single most effective method of reducing chronic inflammation.