Chronic Inflammation: Causes, Treatment, & Its Effect on Our Skin
Let’s be real: could chronic skin irritation BE any more frustrating? *Chandler Bing voice*
For many of us, the answer is a resounding “hellllll NO🤬” - and, unfortunately, the presence of red, flaky, or broken skin is a burden that can’t be simply avoided by hiding under the sheets for the rest of eternity. From taking a shower without pain to wearing clothing without chafing, chronic skin inflammation wreaks havoc on nearly every facet of the sufferer’s existence.
However, even though most of us with or without inflammation are somewhat familiar with the symptoms, not all of us fully understand what chronic inflammation exactly means. Like, how does it appear? What can we do (if anything) to control it? Are there other, more ominous health risks involved? To roll back the curtain on this painful affliction, let’s take a moment to examine how chronic skin inflammation comes to be and just how many aspects of our overall health it touches.
What causes chronic skin inflammation?
Much like other skin conditions, inflammation is triggered by several varying factors (1). These include:
With immune system dysfunction, your system actually attacks its own healthy, functioning self and can trigger chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis. Also, gluten-intolerant people may see inflammation appear from a condition called dermatitis herpetiformis, or a burning, blistering, itching rash, caused by the autoimmune disease known as celiac. Bye bye, bottomless breadsticks. 😖
An allergic reaction is formed by consuming triggering foods or medications, causing uncomfortable, often painful inflammation. This can also be a result of contact dermatitis, or when your skin comes in contact with irritants like perfume and certain cosmetics (or washing your hands with irritating soap/sanitizers). Luckily, there are tests you can take through your healthcare provider to pinpoint allergies you may be unaware of, allowing you to avoid potential triggers.
Bacterial, viral and fungal infections are a little easier to decipher than others, as those tend to have a trademark look to them which helps distinguish the problem (ringworm appears as inflamed circles on your skin, for example). You can contract these kinds of infections from contact with other people and even animals, so recalling who and what you’ve had contact with in the week prior to your inflammation can help zero in on the cause.
Photosensitivity - although a bit more rare than other common cases of skin inflammation - is still a cause of discomfort for many. This kind of inflammation is triggered by sunlight, and the person afflicted must steer clear to avoid red, inflamed skin. Photosensitivity is most similar to heat sensitivity, which is when sweat gets trapped inside your pores and causes an intense rash (think of your worst sunburn, but on steroids). If you’ve been enjoying the sunny season and begin to develop a rash, be sure to cover up and lather on the sunscreen to protect yourself from sun exposure.
Lastly, with other chronic skin conditions such as eczema, your skin barrier has a deficiency in certain lipids (mainly ceramides, as science has moved closer to proving) which causes your skin to break out in rashes composed of red, itchy, inflamed skin. Genetics, immune system dysfunction as described above, and/or penetrating bacteria can all contribute to this kind of reaction.
Chronic Inflammation Treatment
Let’s face it: skin inflammation is inconvenient, painful and impossible to avoid once you have it. However, once you’ve figured out what the root cause of your inflammation is (whether it be from a doctor or self-examination and research), you can begin to explore treatment options to tackle the issue at hand. Before we go on, though, it’s important to note this: if your condition is unbearably painful, covering the majority of your body, or obviously infected, consult your healthcare provider right away to seek professional treatment!
Depending on the status of your inflammation, there are a variety of treatment options available - the most common and easily accessible form of treatment is topical, like a ceramide or antifungal cream. These topical ointments are built to penetrate your skin barrier and help rebuild your damaged complexion to provide some much needed relief from irritation. However, some of these topical ointments don’t permanently fix the problem, requiring constant application to be fully effective and stopping application could put you right back at square one. Your doctor can prescribe a stronger ointment than the over-the-counter options if need be.
If you do end up visiting your doctor to seek treatment, they may also prescribe an oral medication to attack the inflammation from the inside out, like an antihistamine for allergies or antibiotic to treat infection. In contrast to a topical option, oral medications often provide quicker, longer lasting relief, but can also have frustrating side effects attached (stomach discomfort, drowsiness, etc.). Be sure to keep tabs on your reaction to oral medications and make note of any health changes to your doctor so they can adjust their treatment approach.
Of course, the ever-popular (and budget-friendly) options are found in at-home remedies. Although these tend to be largely hit or miss, you may be able to pinpoint a few different approaches that help relieve inflammation and actually diminish the effects of your ailment in the long run.
For example, one common home treatment involves tea tree oil, which has long been hailed by do-it-yourself-ers and scientists alike as an effective anti-inflammatory treatment for seborrheic dermatitis (2). As with any DIY treatment, however, you should only apply a small amount to a sample area at first so you can monitor your skin’s reaction and ensure the “treatment” doesn’t accidentally make things worse...
Lifestyle changes both big and small can also help you manage your inflammation. Stress is often a major trigger for rashes and hives (among other health concerns), so managing this important aspect of your life could help curb sudden bouts of redness and itchiness (looking for some guidance on effectively managing anxiety and stress? Try this 7-day routine to start).
While you experiment with different approaches to treatment, you can help avoid further irritation by wearing soft, loose clothing and applying cold compresses to your infected skin for temporary relief. And if you’re using cosmetics or skin care of any kind, steering clear of endocrine disruptors can keep your skin from getting further inflamed as well.
Chronic inflammation and cancer
Not to scare anyone, but if we’re going to explore the topic of chronic inflammation, we must address one detrimental aspect: cancer. Unfortunately, chronic inflammation has long been studied and ultimately linked to some forms of cancer, as the condition can cause tumors to develop from damaged cells. It’s said that long-term autoimmune diseases increase one’s risk of developing this devastating condition, with chronic inflammation contributing to roughly 20% of all human cancers (3).
Ironically, inflammation is a good thing - its purpose is to rebuild and repair damaged skin tissue. However, if persistent, chronic inflammation can actually contribute to the transformation of cancer-originating cells, which are capable of inducing DNA damage (3). Meaning: if your skin is constantly inflamed and fighting off an infection, the long-term battle could actually result in cancer-causing cells to develop.
If you have an autoimmune disease, have long suffered from chronic inflammation, or otherwise experience persistent irritation, it’s best to consult your healthcare provider right away to rule out any potential risks to your overall health.
Chronic skin inflammation affects everyone differently. Whether you’re a newcomer to the game or a veteran player, understanding your condition is not only important to finding faster relief, but also keeping yourself healthy for the long-term. Be sure to keep tabs on your skin’s appearance and pinpoint the exact cause for quicker, more effective treatment.
Written by Adrianne Neal