What is Inflammation?

Medically reviewed by Aaron L Weigmann MD., MS Plastic Surgeon May 20, 2024| Written by Zenda Nel

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is an immune-mediated response mounted by the body. Allergies, infections, physical injuries, autoimmune diseases, chronic diseases, and environmental factors like pollutants and toxins can trigger inflammation.

When an inflammatory condition occurs, the body’s immune system releases white blood cells to help fight whatever process is occurring. 

A high white blood cell count may indicate an allergic response, infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites, or an inflammatory condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis. It may also indicate cancer of the blood such as leukemia.

What Happens in the Body When There's Inflammation?

When there is inflammation, white blood cells secrete chemicals into the blood or affected tissues to fight the infection or injury that's causing the inflammation. White blood cells make up less than 1% of blood. An injury increases the blood flow and concentration of white blood cells in the area of the injury or infection, which results in

  • Redness
  • Warmth to the touch
  • Swelling as a result of fluid leaking into the tissue

While this is happening, nerves may be activated - resulting in pain.

Infection and any resulting inflammation normally leads to increased levels of white blood cells to fight the microbe.

What are the Signs of Inflammation?

Inflammation is categorized byfive cardinal signs, namely redness, swelling, heat, pain, and loss of function - with the first four identified by Celsus in ancient Rome.

1. Pain

That day when you woke up with a sore throat, the cause was inflammation. Pain is caused by substances called mediators, which can come from the injury itself or the body's response to the injury. Also, swelling can stretch the nerves in the area, causing pain.

Pain has a protective function, as one instinctively stops using the affected area or injured limb.

2. Heat

When an inflammation occurs the immune system releases various substances known as inflammatory mediators. These cause the small blood vessels in the tissue to widen - allowing more blood to reach the injured tissue and causing the area to feel hot. 

3. Redness 

The widening of blood vessels allows more blood to reach the injured area making it look red.

4. Swelling 

The inflammatory mediators allow immune system cells to enter the affected tissue, where they cause more fluid to enter the inflamed tissue, leading to swelling. The swelling disappears once the inflammation subsides and the fluid moves out of the tissue.

5. Loss of Function         

The loss of function refers to the inability to use an area of the body at its normal level of function, often caused by swelling and pain.

6. Other Signs that indicate inflammation

A severe bout of inflammation can cause a person to feel ill, exhausted, and feverish. This indicates that the immune system is under pressure and may lack energy for normal functions. A blood test will probably show an increased number of white blood cells.

It's important to know that inflammation doesn't always present with all five symptoms. A person's body can be riddled with so-called silent inflammation that presents with no symptoms.

7. Extreme Inflammation Due to Sepsis

A very high white blood cell count accompanied by high fever can be a sign of sepsis. This happens when bacteria from an infection somewhere in the body lands in the bloodstream. This in turn leads to extensive inflammation throughout the body which can result in tissue damage, organ failure, and ultimately death.

Sepsis happens when the immune system is severely compromised and unable to withstand infections. Though it can be caused by bacteria, fungi, and viruses; it is most often the result of bacterial infection. 

Once the infection spreads through the bloodstream, the immune system reacts with an immense inflammatory response. The patient develops a fever and an increased heart and breathing rate.

If sepsis remains untreated, the patient may go into septic shock, which causes blood pressure to drop and eventually multi-organ failure.

What are the Types of Inflammation? 

Inflammation is divided into three categories: acute inflammation, subacute inflammation, and chronic inflammation.

a) Acute Inflammation

Acute inflammation can be the result of tissue damage due to injury, microbial invasion, or poisonous substances. The onset is immediate and progresses fast, with symptoms lasting for a few days, after which it subsides.

The inflammation is clear to see as there is swelling and redness. Also, the affected area is painful to touch and difficult to move. The inflammation is a natural response of the immune system that has started fighting the result of the injury by releasing increased numbers of white blood cells. 

If blood clotting is normal, scar tissue starts forming. During the acute phase, doctors may recommend that patients follow the RICE protocol to give the injured part of the body time to heal. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevation. 

If the injury is not too serious, moving the affected area slowly and carefully can start the healing process.

Acute inflammation can be caused by:

  • Physical injury
  • An infected body part like a wound
  • A sore throat because of a cold or the flu 
  • Acute bronchitis
  • Toxic chemicals and poisons

b) Subacute inflammation

Subacute inflammation is the inflammation stage between the acute phase and the chronic phase. It can last two to six weeks.

c) Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is also referred to as slow or long-term inflammation. It can last a long time, from several months up to years.

Chronic inflammatory diseases are theprimary cause of death worldwide as three out of every five people die due to chronic inflammatory diseases such as stroke from cerebral vascular inflammation, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.

Common symptoms of chronic inflammation include:

  • Physical pain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders
  • Constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux
  • Fluctuating weight
  • Frequent infections
  • Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a serious health problem because the inflammation doesn't resolve and persists for a long time. Scientists now think that it's this chronic state of inflammation that is at the root of diseases like arthritis,Alzheimer's disease, stroke, cancer, and others.

Risk factors for Chronic Inflammation

Scientists have identified severalrisk factors that can lead to chronic inflammatory responses:

  • Age: As people get older, they have elevated levels of several inflammatory molecules. This increase may have something to do with changes in mitochondrial function, increase of free radicals over time, and other age-related factors.
  • Obesity: Scientific studies have reported that fat tissue secretes inflammatory mediators. A BMI (body mass index) of 30 or above, and the presence of visceral fat is a major risk for inflammation. 
  • Diet: A diet rich in saturated fat, trans-fats, or refined sugar can lead to a higher risk of chronic inflammation, particularly in people who are overweight or have diabetes.
  • Smoking: Smoking causes the body to produce fewer anti-inflammatory molecules, which promotes inflammation.
  • Low Sex Hormone Levels: Healthy levels of sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen can help to reduce the risk of several inflammatory diseases.
  • Stress and Sleep Disorders: Physical and emotional stress affect the immune system. Stress is closely linked to sleep disorders which is considered another risk factor for chronic inflammation.

The Role of Sugar in Inflammation

Diets high in sugar increase the risk of chronic inflammation, which can damage healthy cells.

Recent research exploring the relationship between a high-sugar diet and inflammation has found that excessive sugar intake is closely associated with the development of low-gradechronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.

A meta-analysis of several studies established a correlation betweenhigh sugar intake and chronic inflammation. High sugar intake resulted in increased inflammatory markers in the blood. The same meta-analysis mentions sugary drinks to be one of the major culprits in causing high sugar intake. 

The notion that sugary drinks are closely linked to inflammatory conditions was further supported by a study that found that decreased intake of sugar-sweetened beverages leads tofewer biomarkers for chronic disease.

So far, scientists have not been able to establish whether glucose or fructose causes more inflammation.

Foods that Contribute to Inflammation

What we eat can contribute to inflammation. Experts recommend that people avoid the following foods that have inflammatory characteristics.

  • Sweet foods and drinks
  • Fast foods
  • Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, and pasta made with white flour
  • Red meat, such as steak and hamburgers
  • Processed meat, such as pastrami, ham, and bacon
  • Deep-fried food, including French fries and chicken wings
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages, including sodas, bottled or canned tea and coffee
  • Trans fats are present in margarine, instant ramen noodles, cakes, cookies, crackers, etc.
  • Alcohol
  • Bottled condiments
  • MSG present in Asian foods, soy sauce, and powdered soups

How to Get Rid of Inflammation – Supplements, Home Remedies, and Tonics 

1. Fish oil

Fish oil is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids which are crucial for good health. Many studies have looked at the effect of fish oil supplementation on inflammation. 

One study showed fish oil supplementation to beso effective that some rheumatoid arthritis patients were able to stop taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) without experiencing a resurgence of the disease.

2. Curcumin

Curcumin, the main bioactive substance in turmeric, has emerged as a major natural aid to treat numerous diseases. 

Several clinical trials have studied the safety and efficacy of curcumin in various diseases and found that it can reduce inflammation and joint pain caused byrheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Curcumin has also shown that it can decrease inflammation in patients withosteoarthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

A review of 31 randomized controlled trials indicates that curcumin maybenefit numerous inflammatory conditions, including psoriasis, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Though curcumin is poorly absorbed. Scientists are now exploring its combined intake with piperine which increases the bioavailability of curcuminby 2000%.

3. Ginger

Ginger has more than 400 natural compounds, some with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Some studies have indicated that inflammation seems to subside with the intake of ginger.

A review published online in 2022 highlighted the various compounds in ginger that show efficacy againstseveral inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, psoriasis, and cancer tumors. 

4. Resveratrol

Resveratrol is a plant compound that is found in red wine, the skin and seeds of grapes, berries, and peanuts. Resveratrol supplementation has been shown to improve inflammatory markers in patients withnonalcoholic fatty liver disease

The compound has also shown apronounced anti-inflammatory effect in a study of Brazilian military firefighters undergoing a physical fitness test. The compound also decreased inflammatory markers in obese patients. 

The researchers also found that the compoundinduced metabolic changes in these patients as if they restricted their calorie intake.

5. Chicken Broth

Chicken broth is made by simmering chicken bones, meat, and vegetables slowly over many hours. Packed with essential nutrients, chicken broth has been used as a medicinal remedy by many cultures over centuries. 

The protein, vitamins, amino acids, gelatin, collagen, and minerals in chicken broth can promote immune function in general, reduce inflammation, improve joint health, and reduce arthritis pain.

6. Baking Soda and Water Tonic

Baking soda (bicarb) has some anti-inflammatory action. A 2018 study involving rats and humans suggests drinking baking soda mixed with water could be a way to activate the body's natural anti-inflammatory processes.

The scientists found the mixture may helpreduce the painful inflammation of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Perhaps, this cheap, over-the-counter antacid triggers the spleen to promote an anti-inflammatory environment.  

Scientists working on several studies are optimistic about the possible use of bicarb for treating diseases caused by inflammation.

7. Japanese Matcha

Japanese matcha is a powdered green tea grown in the shade - a practice that helps plants accumulate high levels of biologically active compounds. Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant substances in green tea make it apowerful anti-inflammatory drink.

How Can I Prevent Inflammation? 

Diet and lifestyle changes can help with chronic inflammation. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Follow an Anti-inflammatory Diet

An anti-inflammatory diet is basically a whole-food diet packed with nutrients and antioxidants. That would be fresh fruit, vegetables, and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. Foods high in antioxidants reduce inflammation by fighting free radicals.

The Mediterranean diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, whole grains, and olive oil is high in antioxidants and excellent as an anti-inflammatory diet. 

Anti-inflammatory foods to include in your diet are: 

  • Food rich in omega-3, such as salmon, tuna, tofu, walnuts, flax seeds, and soybeans. 
  • Other anti-inflammatory foods include grapes, celery, blueberries, garlic, olive oil, tea, and some spices (ginger, rosemary, and turmeric).
  • Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.
  • Non-starchy vegetables such as kale, spinach, bell peppers, green beans, and eggplant. 
  • Deep-colored fruit like blueberries, plums, pomegranates, pawpaw, grapes, and cherries.
  • Healthy fats from olives, avocados, seeds, and nuts.
  • Dark chocolate.
  • Green tea.

2. Avoid Inflammatory foods

We have discussed anti-inflammatory foods. This category includes processed or deep-fried foods, refined carbohydrates, as well as sweet foods and drinks.

3. Keep Blood Sugar under Control

Limitrefined carbohydrates foods,such as white flour, white rice, white bread, and refined sugar. These foods are broken down into simple sugars which are rapidly absorbed, causing insulin to spike, with inflammatory results.

Replace refined carbohydrates with whole-grain foods, such as rolled oats, unpolished rice, and whole wheat flour.

4. Get Enough Exercise

Research has shown that regular physical activity reduces inflammation. If you are not naturally athletic and don't enjoy sports, you can always go for walks. 

Experts suggest one should aim for 30 minutes of exercise every day – that should be moderate intensive aerobic exercise like a brisk walk, a few laps in the pool, or a few games of tennis or pickleball. 

5. Watch Your Weight

If you are overweight, make a plan to lose some weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk for inflammation, especially if you carry weight in the area of your abdomen. 

6. Manage Stress

Stress, whether physical, mental, or emotional, is detrimental to your health. We cannot entirely avoid or eliminate stress in our lives. So we must find a way to deal with it in a sensible way that does not affect our health and lead to increased inflammation.

7. Get Adequate Sleep

Research has shown that people who do not get enough sleep or have frequent disrupted or poor quality sleep are at a greater risk of inflammation as well as type 2 diabetes and weight gain.

Our bodies perform crucial tasks while we are asleep, which rejuvenates our bodies. Without enough quality sleep, the body can't stay healthy.

Does Fiber Help with Inflammation?

Yes, a diet high in fiber helps todecrease inflammation. Eating food high in fiber is a way to regulate your blood sugar, since fiber slows the digestion of carbohydrates, so insulin levels don't spike.

Fiber further reduces inflammation by boosting the good bacteria in the intestines. Also, foods high in fiber contain phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory effects. 

Get more fiber into your diet by following these tips.

  • Replace refined flour products like white bread and regular pasta with whole-grain products such as whole-wheat bread and whole-wheat pasta. 
  • Buy unpolished rice and quinoa, instead of white rice.
  • Eat some vegetables at every meal, after all, there is a large variety to choose from.
  • Consider including lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and other beans in your diet. They are full of fiber and packed with nutrients. 
  • Eat fruit every day. Fruit is high in fiber and is a delicious addition to a healthy diet.
  • Include nuts and seeds in your diet. They make a tasty and filling snack.


Inflammation is very detrimental to health. Inflammation can contribute to serious health problems including stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. 

It can also damage the body’s tissues and healthy cells in the arteries, organs, and joints.

Fortunately, we can significantly reduce destruction related to inflammation by following a healthy diet and active lifestyle, getting enough good quality sleep, and managing stress sensibly.