Doctor Decoded: What Inflammation Actually Means

Inflammation is not just a buzzword.

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You’ll frequently hear health claims about various ingredients or remedies that fight inflammation. It might sound like a vague, abstract buzzword, but inflammation is actually a legitimate phenomenon in the body that can have real consequences.

Inflammation is a byproduct of the immune system. When the immune system is doing its job to protect the body, inflammation naturally occurs. In fact, when you catch a cold, the bulk of your symptoms are actually the result of inflammation—not the bug itself.

Here’s how it works: When your body is exposed to some type of irritant (which could be bacteria, viruses, fungi, or allergens, or something like a cut or scrape), your immune system kicks into gear. It dispatches white blood cells to the area to fight the intruder. This is called acute inflammation.

The white blood cells (including T-cells and B-cells) release substances, including the hormones bradykinin and histamine. These substances cause a number of effects, such as:

  • Sending pain signals to the brain: This gives you the clue to be more protective of the area or take it easy.

  • Inviting extra fluid to the area: This helps flush out foreign invaders.

  • Dilating the blood vessels: Widened blood vessels help bring extra blood flow and immune cells to the area.

The result of these effects causes the trademark symptoms of inflammation: redness, swelling, pain, and some loss of function. That’s why your tonsils get big, red, and tender when they’re infected, or your skin turns red and puffy when it’s cut.

Chronic inflammation is when there is a prolonged immune response that results in destruction of normal tissue in the area. This can be due to the presence of unwanted substances in the body, such as toxins from cigarette smoke or excess fat cells in the body.

But sometimes, the immune system mistakes healthy organs as invaders and attacks. This is a category of conditions known as autoimmune diseases, and some of the most common include:

  • Crohn’s disease: an immune response against the digestive tract

  • Alopecia areata: an immune response against the hair follicles

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: an immune response against the joints

  • Multiple sclerosis: an immune response against the central nervous system

  • Celiac disease: an immune response against the small intestine when the gluten protein is present

Thanks to improved understanding of the immune response, treatment for both acute and chronic inflammation has improved, allowing millions to live a better quality of life.