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Inflammation: Friend or foe?

Inflammation may indicate your body is recovering or suffering, but how can you tell?

If you’ve ever jarred your finger and felt it swelling up, or had an infection that’s painful to touch, you’ve felt the effects of inflammation. Inflammation is a natural step in the body’s healing process. While it can be uncomfortable, it signals your defence system is mustering its strength, responding to harm and getting things back in order.

Common signs of inflammation include redness and warmth (as blood flow increases to the injured tissue), swelling from fluid, pain and immobility.

Inflammation should only be a short term immune response. But sometimes, the immune system fails to switch off , causing chronic inflammation that may do more harm than good. Read on to find out more about inflammation and the habits that may help you to manage it.

What causes acute inflammation?

Your body has been cleverly designed to fix itself when things go wrong. Acute inflammation is its way of protecting you; a sign that your immune system is fighting against potential harm. Some triggers include tissue damage, such as a burn, cut, or bump, the presence of a foreign substance like a splinter or presence of a pathogen such as a virus or bacteria.

During the inflammation process your:

  • Body alerts and attract immune cells to the area of a pathogen
  • Immune cells will fight the pathogen and eliminate it
  • Specialised cells will then start to repair any damage.

Good and bad inflammation

If inflammation is in response to a trigger like an infection or injury, the body’s defence system will respond rapidly and trigger the physical signs like redness or warmth or swelling. Typically these symptoms should only last for a short space of time. Depending on the source, this response may last for a few days, up to a couple of weeks.

But inflammation can also be long-term, lasting for several months or even years. This may result from the body failing to eliminate the bacteria, virus or other micro-organism causing the inflammation or mistakenly attacking its own cells. When inflammation is ongoing it is considered chronic inflammation. Some chronic inflammatory diseases include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: A condition where permanent joint inflammation occurs.
  • Psoriasis: A chronic skin disease.
  • Inflammation of the bowel: Conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

While inflammation plays a key role in your body’s defence mechanism, it’s thought that chronic inflammation may increase the risk of developing more serious conditions and diseases, such as some types of cancer and type 2 diabetes.

How to treat acute inflammation 

Some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin are available over-the-counter, and are commonly used to reduce pain caused by acute inflammation. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you are considering taking them.

MORE: What’s the difference between paracetemol and ibuprofun 

For muscle and joint injuries, compressing, elevating and applying something cool to an inflamed area will help relieve some symptoms of inflammation, but won’t eliminate the underlying cause of the inflammation.  

Healthy habits may also help prevent chronic inflammation, or in some cases reduce pain linked to inflammatory conditions. 

Healthy habits for managing chronic inflammation

Maintain a healthy weight

It’s no secret that being overweight or obese increases the risk of a range of chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Research indicates that being overweight triggers low grade, long-term inflammation, which may play a role in these chronic health conditions. So you can add inflammation to the long list of reasons you should maintain a healthy weight by eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly.   

Limit your alcohol

People who choose to drink alcohol should drink within the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines. This recommends that healthy Australians should have no more than two standard alcoholic drinks per day. Excessive drinking above these levels on a regular basis may lead to chronic inflammation, including long-term effects on the liver, stomach, intestines and pancreas.

MORE: How to take a break from drinking alcohol 

Omega-3 fats  

According to the Arthritis Australia certain type of fat called omega-3 may help reduce the inflammation associated with some forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis. These fats are found mostly in oily fish, such as salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and mackerel. Omega 3 fat can also be found in walnuts, and flaxseed and canola oil, although these oils may not be as effective at reducing inflammation as fish oils.

Eating these foods may have a range of benefits for your health, but if you are experiencing arthritis, it’s likely you’ll need a supplement to get enough omega-3s to reduce inflammation.


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