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Can medication tame chronic inflammation?

April 1, 2022

The answer isn’t "yes" for everyone. Here’s what you need to know about it.

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Many diseases are marked by chronic inflammation — the persistent activation of the immune system. Although we have lots of medications to quiet acute (short-term) inflammation — like an attack of gout — they’re not often effective in preventing chronic inflammation. And some people don’t realize that. "I’ve had patients come in and say, ‘I keep reading that inflammation is a killer. Can you give me something for it?’ There’s a lot of misconception about it," notes Dr. Robert Shmerling, a rheumatologist and medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Fighting Inflammation (/ui).

Understanding inflammation

When the immune system is alerted to damage or danger in the body — such as infection or injury — it sends cells that fight invading microbes, clean up debris, and begin the healing process. The response is called acute inflammation, and it’s temporary.

But sometimes the immune response continues over a long period, injuring a specific part of the body. This chronic inflammation can be triggered by any number of inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis (which attacks the lining of the joints) or inflammatory bowel disease (which attacks the digestive tract lining).

Chronic inflammation can also result from an unhealthy lifestyle — being sedentary, smoking, eating an unhealthy diet, not getting enough sleep, drinking too much alcohol, or being stressed all the time. Those habits promote inflammation throughout the body, and play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and diabetes.

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About the Author

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Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Heidi Godman is the executive editor of the Harvard Health Letter. Before coming to the Health Letter, she was an award-winning television news anchor and medical reporter for 25 years. Heidi was named a journalism fellow … See Full Bio
View all posts by Heidi Godman

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Fighting Inflammation

Chronic inflammation plays a central role in some of the most challenging diseases of our time, including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and even Alzheimer’s. This report will examine the role that chronic inflammation plays in these conditions, and will also provide information on the breadth of drugs currently available to alleviate symptoms. Drug choices range from simple aspirin, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug that’s been available for more than a century, to disease-modifying drugs and so-called biologics that promise more targeted treatments.

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