Working at a medical school, I hear the word “inflammation” in our students’ classes at least once a day. When people begin learning about inflammation, they usually ask a common question: Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Inflammation is part of the body’s normal response to injury or infection. The four classic signs of inflammation are:
- redness, and
If you have ever been stung by a bee or twisted your ankle, you may have noticed all four of these symptoms. This inflammatory response helps set up an environment in which your immune system can fight invaders or repair damaged tissue. When the infection or injury has healed, the inflammation usually disappears. Inflammation sometimes causes some collateral damage—the immune cells fighting a bacterial infection can catch your own healthy cells in the crossfire and destroy them, too. However, when inflammation is controlled and short-lived, the damage is usually minor and easily repaired.
Inflammation becomes dangerous when it lasts for a long period of time and is not well-controlled. Chronic, or ongoing, inflammation is damaging to the body and is associated with many diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and arthritis. Sometimes chronic inflammation occurs in response to microorganisms, such as in gum disease, where germs in the mouth cause an inflammatory reaction that harms gums and teeth. In other cases, inflammation attacks your own tissues; this occurs in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Whether inflammation is helpful or harmful depends on how long the inflammation lasts and the part of the body where it occurs.
You may not be able to control every factor relating to inflammation, but there are many ways to help reduce it. General tips to reduce inflammation include:
- eating a healthy, balanced diet,
- getting enough sleep and exercise, and
- quitting smoking.
The good news is that because inflammation plays a role in so many illnesses, a healthy lifestyle may help reduce the risk of many diseases.
Rebekah Morrow, PhD, is an assistant professor of immunology and microbiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.