We’ve all experienced inflammation at some point in our lives, whether from an injury or illness. That’s as it should be; inflammation, which falls under the purview of our immune system, is one of the tools our bodies use to repair themselves when we get sick or hurt. But chronic inflammation is entirely different — and, indeed, chronic inflammation can lead to many other health issues later on down the line.
According to Live Science, inflammation occurs when “blood vessels dilate, blood flow increases and white blood cells swarm the injured area to promote healing.” Redness and swelling often occur during this part of the process — say, when you sprain an ankle or develop a sore throat. At this point, the affected tissue unleashes inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which signal to your body what other cells are needed to help repair whatever is going on. Those cells arrive and get to work. Then, once the danger is over, the inflammation dies down.
However, our immune system doesn’t always play by the rules — and that’s when the trouble starts. In the case of autoimmune disorders, the immune system incorrectly identifies healthy tissues as threats and starts going after them continuously. Chronic inflammation can be a part of this misplaced immune system response — and, as Michael Anft observed that Johns Hopkins University Health Review in 2016, chronic inflammation “produces a steady, low level of inflammation within the body that can contribute to the development of disease. … Arteries and organs break down under the pressure, leading to other diseases.”
Here are just a few of the ways that chronic inflammation can cause more trouble later:
1. It Can Damage Your Joints
When the inflammatory chemicals released by the immune system go after your joint tissue, a whole host of issues can arise: Your joints can swell; you might experience a buildup of fluid in your joints; and your cartilage and bone can sustain damage. In fact, according to the Arthritis Foundation, inflammation can be the cause of several types of arthritis, including rheumatoid and gouty.
2. It Can Mess With Your Skin
As Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing website notes, psoriasis is typically classified as a dermatologic disease, but at its most “basic level,” it’s an immune system disorder. When specific white blood cells become overactive, they overproduce certain chemicals which then trigger inflammation in a bunch of organs, including the skin (fun fact: the skin is the largest organ in the human body).
This kind of inflammation has several hallmarks, one of which is the faster-than-usual multiplication of the cells that make up the outer layer of your skin. While the process of your skin cells’ cycle of life — dividing, maturing, rising to the surface, and shedding — usually takes about a month, if you have psoriasis, it can happen in a matter of days, leaving you with uncomfortable, red, scaly skin. What’s more, psoriasis can lead to another form of arthritis: About a third of psoriasis patients later develop psoriatic arthritis, according to WebMD.
3. It Can Screw Up Your Sleep
Or, if your sleep patterns are already a little messed up, it might make your inflammation worse — right now, all we know is that there’s a link between inflammation and circadian disorders, not whether one causes the other. It might even be cyclical — as one study published in the journal Sleep Science and Practice put it in 2017, “circadian disruption leads to dysregulation of immune responses and inflammation which can further disrupt circadian rhythms.”
Either way, though, it’s worth noting that a 2009 study had previously found that people who sleep for either longer or shorter amounts of time than average also tend to have higher levels of proteins related to inflammation in their blood.
4. It Can Attack Your Gums
The gum disease periodontitis — a bacterial inflammation of the gums that can lead to damage to the structures supporting your teeth — has more complications than just what’s going on in your mouth. A 2016 study published in the journal Circulation found that it also ups your risk for heart attack by almost 50 percent. In a group of 1,600 adults from Sweden, half of whom had had heart attacks between 2010 and 2014 and half of whom hadn’t, 43 percent of the heart attack patients had periodontitis, compared to only 33 percent of the patients who hadn’t had any heart attacks. Analysis also revealed that people with periodontitis were 49 percent more likely to have a heart attack.
5. It Can Cause Plaque Buildup In Your Blood
Per the Cleveland Clinic, a surplus of inflammatory cells in your blood vessels — particularly a surplus that “hangs around too long” — can result in a buildup of plaque in those same blood vessels. This, in turn, prompts your arteries to “thicken,” thereby upping your risk of heart attack or stroke. As Deepak Bhatt, M.D. explained it to the American Heart Association, your body “perceives this plaque as abnormal and foreign — it does not belong in a healthy blood vessel.” Accordingly, your body “tries to wall off the plaque from the flowing blood” — but “under the wrong set of circumstances, that plaque may rupture, and its walled-off contents can come into contact with blood and trigger a blood clot formation.”
6. It Can Damage Your Esophagus
In 2016, a study published in JAMA found that if you have acid reflux, it might not be the acid itself that’s harming your esophagus — it might be the inflammatory response your esophagus has to proteins secreted during an episode of acid reflux. And according to the Johns Hopkins University Health Review, this damage in turn increases your risk of cancer. Esophageal cancer is the sixth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the world, according to the Mayo Clinic, so never underestimate the importance of treating acid reflux.
7. It Can Mess With Your Gut
Chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract characterizes both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis — two conditions which are collectively referred to as inflammatory bowel disease. We don’t know exactly what causes either Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis yet, but we do think it has something to do with the immune system “responding incorrectly to environmental triggers,” according to the CDC, which can then cause the inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract that characterizes both conditions.
8. It Can Weaken Your Bones
A review published in the Journal of Endocrinology in 2009 covered the many, many ways inflammation can weaken your bones, but the short version is that bone loss is associated with chronic inflammatory diseases of all kinds. Pro-inflammatory proteins tend to cause an “imbalance in bone metabolism,” as a 2005 study put it, in which bone resorption is favored, which means your bones won’t repair themselves as readily or perform the maintenance they need to stay strong. Bone loss can lead to brittle or easily fractured bones.
9. It Can Cause High Blood Pressure
When your kidneys become inflamed, it’s called nephritis or glomerulonephritis. Nephritis can occur as a result of a variety of causes; sudden, severe infections might lead to it, as might chronic conditions like lupus. No matter the cause, though, inflammation dramatically impacts how your kidneys function, which in turn can lead to a host of other issues, including high blood pressure. High blood pressure has been linked to issues like stroke, heart attack, heart failure, loss of vision, and kidney failure.
Luckily, chronic inflammation can be managed; if it's something you think might be affecting you, get checked out by your doctor and go from there. You can also look into free or low-cost health care resources, depending on your insurance and financial situation.