What is Inflammation? A Glossary of Common Terms & What They Mean

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Inflammation may be the hottest topic in wellness since the negative effects of stress hit the scene. For good cause, too: Inflammation has been linked to a host of complications, including heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s. In other words? Doing your part to thwart it ought to top your list of health to-dos.

And yet, given its prevalence, trying to stay abreast of the latest news surrounding it can be daunting without basic knowledge. With this in mind, we’ve put together a glossary of common terms associated with inflammation—so that you can get a head’s start on combatting it.

What is Inflammation Answered by Glossary of Terms in Open Book with Glasses Sitting on Top | Vitacost.com/blog

But first: What is inflammation, exactly?

Consider inflammation one of your body’s biggest allies—but also one of its biggest risks. Referring to the process in which your body reacts to potential or perceived threats, inflammation occurs when the immune system does what it can to protect you. It’s a beautiful thing, when framed this way—allowing you to heal from wounds and recover from infections.

But when the inflammatory response goes on for too long, or strikes in areas where it’s not needed, troubles can start, and may ultimately manifest in the conditions listed above, as well as autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, or other health conditions like hay fever, pancreatitis and even some cancers.

Knowing as much about it as possible is your first step towards avoiding it. Let’s get started.

Acute Inflammation

…is exactly as it sounds. Think of a time when you cut your finger, or sprained your toe: Your finger aches like crazy and bleeds, while your toe swells to twice its size and grows red. This is due to the dilation of blood vessels and an increase in blood flow; meanwhile, “white blood cells swarm the injured area to promote healing,” Dr. Scott Walker—a family practice physician at Utah’s Gunnison Valley Hospital—told Live Science. As your cut scabs up and your toe heals, your body’s acute reaction to the distress recedes and inflammation resolves.

Chronic Inflammation:

…also called persistent, low-grade inflammation, it’s the form of inflammation you want to do your best to avoid, in that it generates steady, low-level inflammation throughout the body that can promote the development of disease. As touched upon above, in chronic inflammation, a low-level immune response can be activated by a perceived internal menace—even if there isn’t an injury to heal or an infection to battle. Think back to those white blood cells that flooded towards your finger or toe in an effort to help you heal. In this case, the white blood cells—ready for action—have “nothing to do and nowhere to go, and they may eventually start attacking internal organs or other healthy tissues and cells,” Walker says. The ultimate result of this? The health complications outlined earlier.

CRP Test:

…refers to a test in which the level of C-reactive proteins is measured in your blood. (Produced by your liver, CRP is sent into your bloodstream in response to inflammation.) This test is often used to monitor conditions that cause inflammation, including bacterial infections (such as sepsis), fungal infection, inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune disorders, Medline Plus reports. High CRP levels are frequently deemed a telltale sign of inflammation, but other factors—including smoking, a lack of exercise and obesity—can also contribute to elevated amounts (and they themselves can also contribute to inflammation—see Lifestyle Habits below).

Cyclooxygenase (COX):

…is an enzyme that “catalyzes the formation of prostaglandins,” the National Institutes of Health says. While we’ll go into prostaglandins more below, for here it’s vital to know that they’re linked to inflammatory responses. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) impact COX to diminish inflammation, and are often recommended for the temporary treatment of inflammation.


…are small signaling proteins that “regulate a wide range of biological functions including innate and acquired immunity, hematopoiesis (the formation of blood cells), inflammation, and repair,” Science Direct reports. In laymen’s terms, cytokines interact with cells in the immune system to moderate your body’s reaction to infections and disease.


…are manufactured drugs that are often used in the treatment of inflammation. Closely resembling cortisol—a hormone you naturally produce (and is most often associated with stress)—they’re typically known by their brand names, such as Medrol and Prednicot. As the Mayo Clinic reports, they “lessen swelling, redness, itching and allergic reactions;” they’re also often used as part of the treatment plan for arthritis and asthma.

Inflammatory foods:

…refers to the foods that can contribute to or cause inflammation. Chief among these are processed meats, sugary drinks, trans fat (found in fried fats), white bread, white pasta, gluten, soybean and vegetable oil, processed snack foods (such as chips and crackers), desserts (such as cookies and candy), alcohol, and excess carbohydrates, Medical News Today says. In short: These are the foods you ought to take pains to avoid.

Mediterranean diet:

…is the diet most favored amongst physicians who want to help their patients reduce inflammation. (It’s also commonly prescribed to decrease the risk of heart disease, depression, and dementia.) “More of an eating pattern than a strictly regimented diet plan,” Harvard Health says, the Mediterranean food pyramid emphasizes the traditional foods of Crete, Greek, and Southern Italy—countries that display low rates of chronic disease and higher-than-average life expectancy (despite limited access to healthcare). Primarily plant-based, the Mediterranean diet is comprised of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, olive oil, small amounts of dairy, fish and red wine.

Lifestyle habits:

…speaks to the habits and behaviors that can lead to inflammation. The biggest culprits? Obesity, stress, smoking, and lack of exercise. As Cancer Center reports, “these factors trigger an immune response, even without an infection to fight off or an injured tissue to heal.” Healthy eating and exercise should, then, top your lifestyle list. Or, take it from Eugene Ahn, MD and Medical Director of Clinical Research and Hematologist/Oncologist in Chicago: “The reason inflammation gets so much attention in the press right now is because a lot of it is dependent on your lifestyle. The more sedentary you are and the worse your diet is, the more inflammation you’re generating.” Even slight shifts can make an enormous difference, such as eating probiotic foods, which are known to reduce inflammation.


…is one of the most dangerous side effects of inflammation. Inflammation in your arteries helps stimulate atherosclerosis—“the buildup of fatty, cholesterol-rich plaque,” Harvard Health reports. Given that your body deems this plaque as a foreign invader, it strives to block plaque from the flowing blood. But if the wall it erects breaks down, “plaque may rupture” and the contents then “mingle with the blood, forming a clot that blocks blood flow.” These clots are serious matters, in that they are responsible for the majority of heart attacks and most strokes.


…are a family of lipid compounds that are made by a chemical reaction at the site of an injury or illness. As part of the way the body deals with the trauma of tissue damage and infection, they cause inflammation, fever and pain—all aspects of the healing process. Almost all of the organs in the body are capable of making them; they also play a central role in blood clotting. While they have specific benefits, excessive levels of prostaglandins—or not enough—can influence disease and ongoing pain. Lack of exercise, nutritional deficiencies, stress—all can impact prostaglandins. In other words? All the more reason to aim for—and achieve—a wholesome, healthy lifestyle.