9 Subtle Signs of Hidden Inflammation in Your Body
The trouble with inflammation is that when it hangs around it can lead to incredibly dangerous types of disease. Protect yourself by knowing these warning signs.
Inflammation has been called both a friend and a foe. Acute inflammation is the body’s normal and complex reaction to a threat, whether bacteria, a burn, frostbite, or a sprain. “The body marshals its defenses to prevent injury or infection,” says Alan Mensch, MD, senior vice president of medical affairs at Northwell’s Plainview Hospital. Signs of acute inflammation include swelling, dilated blood vessels, heat, redness, and pain. “Once the threat is gone, there are factors in the bloodstream that quiet things down again.”
The chronic form of inflammation may not be as severe as the acute type, but it is dangerous: It’s related to many illnesses, ranging from bursitis, colitis, phlebitis, and rhinitis to asthma, cardiac disease, liver disease, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. It can be difficult to know whether you have chronic inflammation in your body, Dr. Mensch says: “It depends on where and how chronic inflammation manifests itself. And it’s not the same in every person.” Here are some subtle signs to watch for.
“Tiredness is very commonly associated with chronic inflammation,” says Dr. Mensch. “It’s like you have the flu all the time.” An extensive body of research shows that people who feel chronically tired have higher markers for inflammation and pro-inflammatory compounds. Find out other medical reasons that you might be tired all the time.
Research links chronic inflammation with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In fact, studies show that in people who have RA and other forms of arthritis, the immune system releases inflammatory chemicals that attack the joints, causing swelling, pain, and other symptoms. These are the foods that can make arthritis and joint inflammation worse.
Bloating, diarrhea, cramping, and gassiness can be signs of Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, and other stomach ailments—and all are connected to chronic inflammation. Everyone experiences these symptoms occasionally, but if they’re ongoing, tell your doctor.
Watery eyes and runny nose
Allergy symptoms, including itchy eyes and a stuffy nose, stem from chronic inflammation, research shows. These are signs that your body is trying to tell you something is wrong, says Dr. Mensch. Don’t miss the 12 foods that make inflammation worse.
Red, itchy skin
“Chronic dermatitis could be a manifestation of chronic inflammation,” Dr. Mensch says. In fact, dermatitis is itself “inflammation of the skin.” If you have a rash that doesn’t go away or red, itchy dry skin patches, check with your doctor.
Coughing and phlegm
People who are suffering from bronchitis are experiencing an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes. Symptoms include a persistent cough, thickened mucus, wheezing, and chest tightening. “This can be a manifestation of chronic inflammation,” says Dr. Mensch.
Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums at the necks of the teeth. Periodontitis is inflammation affecting the bones and tissues of the teeth. Both may be signs of chronic inflammation. Gingivitis as also been linked to heart attack and stroke, says Dr. Mensch. Thorough teeth brushing, daily flossing, and twice-yearly cleanings by a dental hygienist can help alleviate gum problems. Find out the early signs of gum disease you’re probably ignoring.
Lewis Tse Pui Lung/Shutterstock
Anxiety and stress can cause inflammation, says Dr. Mensch, and inflammation can cause depression. “And with depression comes fatigue and other symptoms of chronic conditions.” A new book—The Inflamed Mind: A Radical New Approach to Depression, by Edward Bullmore Short—makes the case that dealing with inflammation in the brain may relieve some types of depression.
Obesity is associated with chronic inflammation, and a “spare tire” is a sign of obesity, says Dr. Mensch. Research has shown that fat cells inside the abdomen secrete molecules that increase inflammation. Numerous studies have supported this link between belly fat and systemic inflammation.
How to detect chronic inflammation
There is a test that can pinpoint the problem: “C-reactive protein, or CRP, gives you a non-specific sense of inflammatory markers circulating through your body,” Dr. Mensch says. Other indicators include high levels of interleukin, a high erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), a high white blood cell count, and a low albumin count, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Ask your doctor about these tests.
Losing weight is one way to battle chronic inflammation. Getting stress and anxiety under control can also help. Exercise is one proven method for reducing all of these issues; so are alternative approaches like meditation and yoga. Another smart move is getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night and eating a healthy diet low in saturated fats and carbohydrates. Incorporating anti-inflammatory foods, such as tomatoes, olive oil, green leafy vegetables, nuts, fatty fish like salmon, and fruits like berries, cherries, and oranges can also battle inflammation, according to Harvard Medical School. Next, don’t miss these anti-inflammatory foods that reduce pain.