Inflammation means activation of the body’s immune system. It does not mean “swelling;” there’s always some kind of inflammation involved when a part of the body swells, but many kinds of inflammation don’t involve any. The word is commonly misunderstood.
Inflammation is nature’s way of fighting germs and foreign substances that enter the body. White blood cells (WBCs) attack, and recruit a variety of chemicals to assist. Without the ability to create inflammatory responses, we would die early in life.
Inflammation feels uncomfortable, whether it’s due to a splinter in a finger, an ear infection, or whatever. Acute inflammation ends when the unwanted invader is cleared from the body. But chronic infection persists, whether it’s due to ongoing infection (like untreated HIV), autoimmune disease when the body mistakenly attacks itself (like rheumatoid arthritis), or cancer. In rare occasions, inflammation can explode in an undesired poorly-understood chain reaction of the immune system, causing real harm, like in those persons who get very sick and die from Covid.
Various medications can fight and dampen inflammation, from weak drugs like NSAIDs (ibuprofen, etc.), to steroids, to more powerful and potentially-dangerous medications used for autoimmune disease (which itself is more dangerous than the medications). But since inflammation is the body’s way of protecting and repairing itself, in those cases it may not be wise to try to combat it, even if we’re feeling bad.
For example, with injuries, inflammation helps the body fix itself. Some animal studies have shown that NSAIDs may delay healing. Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) relieves pain (analgesic) but is not an anti-inflammatory; however, when I suggest it to patients, they get offended, since it’s available over-the-counter.