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Inflammation refers to your body’s process of fighting against things that harm it, like infections, injuries, and toxins, in an attempt to heal itself.

When something damages your cells, your body releases chemicals that trigger a response from your immune system.

This response includes the release of antibodies and proteins, as well as increased blood flow to the damaged area. In the case of acute inflammation — like getting a cut on your knee or dealing with a cold — the whole process usually lasts for a few hours or a few days.

Chronic inflammation happens when this response lingers, leaving your body in a constant state of alert. Over time, chronic inflammation may have a negative impact on your tissues and organs. Some research suggests that chronic inflammation could also play a role in a range of conditions, from cancer to stroke.

Read on to learn more about chronic inflammation, including common causes and foods that may be able to help fight it.

Acute inflammation often causes noticeable symptoms, like pain, redness, or swelling. But chronic inflammation symptoms are usually much more subtle. This makes them easy to overlook.

Common symptoms of chronic inflammation include:

These symptoms can range from mild to severe and last for several months or years.

Several things can cause chronic inflammation, including:

  • untreated causes of acute inflammation, like an infection or injury
  • an autoimmune disorder, which involves your immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue
  • long-term exposure to irritants, like industrial chemicals or polluted air

Keep in mind that these issues don’t cause chronic inflammation in everyone. In addition, some cases of chronic inflammation don’t have a clear underlying cause.

Experts also believe that a range of factors may also contribute to chronic inflammation, like:

When you’re living with chronic inflammation, your body’s inflammatory response can eventually start damaging healthy cells, tissues, and organs. Over time, this can lead to DNA damage, tissue death, and internal scarring.

All of these are linked to the development of several diseases, including:

There are no real tests to diagnose inflammation on its own. But certain blood tests are a good starting point, including ones that highlight C-reactive protein (CRP), which indicates infections or inflammation in the general body (like the joints), and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP), which reflects inflammation of the heart.

Many individuals don’t know they have chronic inflammation until they’re diagnosed with another condition. If you feel like you’re experiencing some of the common symptoms of chronic inflammation, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor. They’ll know the first steps to take when it comes to a diagnosis.

Inflammation is a natural part of the healing process. But when it becomes chronic, it’s important to try to get it under control to reduce your risk of long-term damage. Some of the options that’ve been explored for managing inflammation include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Over-the-counter NSAIDs, like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve), effectively reduce inflammation and pain. But long-term use is linked to an increased risk of several conditions, including peptic ulcer disease and kidney disease.
  • Steroids. Corticosteroids are a type of steroid hormone. They decrease inflammation and suppress the immune system, which is helpful when it starts attacking healthy tissue. But long-term use of corticosteroids can lead to vision problems, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis. When prescribing corticosteroids, your doctor will weigh the benefits and risks with you.
  • Supplements. Certain supplements may help to reduce inflammation. Fish oil, lipoic acid, and curcumin have all been linked to decreased inflammation — although more studies need to be done, especially around fish oil, to say for sure. Several spices may also help with chronic inflammation and inflammatory disease, including ginger, garlic, and cayenne, but again, more research around optimal dosage and definitive statements need to be done.
  • Lifestyle changes. Losing weight (if your doctor recommends it), increasing physical activity, and dietary changes (like a low glycemic diet and reduced saturated fat intake), have all been shown to help lower inflammation.

What you eat can play both a positive and negative role in managing chronic inflammation.

Foods to eat

A variety of foods are known to have anti-inflammatory properties. These include foods that are high in antioxidants and polyphenols, like:

  • olive oil
  • leafy greens, like kale and spinach
  • tomatoes
  • fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, and mackerel
  • nuts
  • fruits, especially cherries, blueberries, and oranges

If your doctor or dietician has recommended you change your eating habits, consider talking with them about the Mediterranean diet. A 2018 study found that participants following this diet had lower markers of inflammation.

Foods to avoid

The following foods have been known to increase inflammation in some people:

  • refined carbohydrates, like white bread and pastries
  • fried foods, like French fries
  • processed meat, like hot dogs and sausage

If you’re trying to reduce chronic inflammation, your doctor may recommend you reduce your intake of these foods. You don’t have to completely eliminate them, but try to eat them only occasionally.

Chronic inflammation can increase your risk of several serious diseases.

Medication, supplements, keeping stress levels low (when possible), exercise, and following a lower-inflammation diet may all help you reduce your risk of living with chronic inflammation — but before making any lifestyle changes, it’s always best to speak with your doctor.

Your doctor may be able to diagnose inflammation using blood tests. Or they may diagnose you with a condition that often accompanies chronic inflammation, like rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, or another autoimmune issue.