What Is Chronic Inflammatory Disease?

Man feeling elbow pain, chronic rheumatism

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Inflammation is the body’s way of responding to threats such as infection. But sometimes the body’s inflammatory response can go haywire, attacking healthy, non-diseased tissues.

Researchers believe that the immune system may play a role in inflammatory diseases. However, the cause of many inflammatory conditions is poorly understood. 

There are a wide variety of conditions that cause ongoing inflammation in the body. These conditions are called chronic inflammatory diseases.  

Man feeling elbow pain, chronic rheumatism

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Types of Chronic Inflammatory Diseases

Here’s an overview of common chronic inflammatory diseases and their symptoms.

Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease is a digestive tract condition that is one of the inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). If you have Crohn’s disease, you will experience periods of no symptoms alternating with attacks consisting of severe symptoms. The inflammation causes symptoms such as:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Bleeding from the rectum

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is another inflammatory bowel disease. It can affect multiple parts of the digestive tract. Like other inflammatory conditions, UC often results in flares that come and go. 

Symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Weight loss
  • Blood in the stool
  • Pus in the stool
  • Anemia 

Symptoms can be mild or severe, depending on the person.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disease that affects the joints. It’s common in the hands and wrists but can affect any joint in the body. 

Symptoms include:

  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Joint stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever

Symptoms can come and go. The inflammation that comes with RA can also affect organs, including the eyes, lungs, and heart.

Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) often starts before the age of 30 and affects the joints and skin. Symptoms vary depending on the person and come and go. 

Symptoms may include:

  • Painful itching of the skin
  • Joint pain, swelling, and redness
  • Nail disease
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a skin condition that most often causes thick, scaly patches on the skin's surface, called plaques. It can also present in the form of tiny, salmon-colored bumps. This is called guttate psoriasis. Other forms of psoriasis include inverse, erythrodermic, and pustular. A third of people with psoriasis may eventually develop psoriatic arthritis.

Lupus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic condition. It can affect multiple parts of the body, including the skin, joints, and organs. People with lupus experience flares that can range from mild to severe. 

According to the American College of Rheumatology, SLE is more common in Black and Asian females.

Early signs of SLE include:

  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of malaise
  • Fever
  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss 
  • Joint pain

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic illness affecting the lungs. The condition causes periodic inflammation that narrows the airways and affects a person's ability to breathe. It can cause respiratory distress. People often develop asthma at a young age.

People with asthma may experience:

  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath

These symptoms may be very severe during an asthma attack, and a person may struggle to breathe. 

Some common asthma symptom triggers include:

  • Cold air
  • Exercise
  • Allergies
  • Laughing or crying 

Symptoms may also worsen when a person has a respiratory illness.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is also an inflammatory condition. Unlike other inflammatory diseases, the cause is a lot more clearly defined. Smokers are much more likely to develop COPD than nonsmokers. However, nonsmokers can also develop the condition by inhaling other irritants over time. 

Symptoms include:

  • Chronic, unrelenting cough
  • Chronic respiratory infections
  • Shortness of breath
  • A blue tinge to the lips or nail beds
  • Wheezing
  • Excess mucus production
  • Fatigue

Chronic Inflammatory Disease Symptoms

There are many diseases that cause chronic or recurring inflammation in the body. When they affect the joints, symptoms often include:

  • Swelling and redness 
  • Joint pain and stiffness

Chronic inflammatory diseases can also affect the organs. Commonly affected organs include parts of the digestive tract, the heart, and lungs. Inflammation can, for example, increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. Some inflammatory disorders, such as certain forms of arthritis, can also cause vision complications.

Causes

Experts understand that chronic inflammation in the body occurs because of an incorrect immune response. However, what triggers this response is not well understood.

Potential causes for chronic inflammatory diseases may include:

  • Autoimmune disease, the cause of which is also often poorly understood
  • Genetics and family history
  • Smoking
  • Environmental triggers

Diagnosis

Diagnosing a chronic inflammatory disease can be difficult because the symptoms may come and go. Different conditions may also share similar symptoms.

A doctor may use the following to help diagnose a chronic inflammatory disease:

  • A physical exam
  • A thorough medical history
  • Visible signs of inflammation
  • Signs of joint pain or reduced joint mobility
  • X-rays
  • Blood tests

Treatment

While treatment plans may differ depending on the particular inflammatory disease in question, common treatment strategies involve:

Prognosis 

Most chronic inflammatory diseases have no cure. Thankfully, available treatments make it possible to manage symptoms such as pain and inflammation. People with chronic inflammatory diseases can live full lives with the right treatment plan.

Coping

In addition to a treatment plan from your doctor, lifestyle changes may help you cope with your condition. Some ways to reduce inflammation and manage symptoms include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising more
  • Eating a healthy diet

You may also find it helpful to talk to other people who have the same condition. Managing a chronic, lifelong illness can feel like a heavy burden. Illness support groups may be helpful for those struggling to cope with a new diagnosis.

Summary

Chronic inflammatory diseases include those that affect the digestive system, joints, skin, respiratory system, and organs. The causes are thought to be a faulty immune response, which may be associated with certain triggers.

Treatment may be with NSAIDs, DMARDs, and lifestyle modifications. Chronic inflammatory diseases cannot be cured, but treatment can manage symptoms and prevent complications.

A Word From Verywell 

Chronic inflammatory diseases can be tough to live with. Still, if you have an inflammatory condition, it’s possible to live a long life thanks to treatment advances.

Coping with pain and other symptoms is challenging, but lifestyle changes and medical treatments can help you manage your chronic inflammatory disease.

If you think you have a chronic inflammatory disease, talk to your doctor. In many cases, early treatment can help prevent complications and allow you to live more comfortably. 

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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