Difference Between Infection And Inflammation

Overview

What is An Infection?

An infection occurs when your body is invaded by  bugs which then begin to multiply and form an army, essentially attacking your cells and making you very poorly. These bugs known as microorganisms have different infectious agents, the three main types include:

  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Fungi

Infections can either be symptomatic (symptoms are apparent) or asymptomatic (symptoms are not present) depending on the severity of the infection. It can often remain in one particular area of the body or may spread to other parts of the body and attack vital organs. Like most things in life, there is good and bad, therefore there are also good bugs (microorganisms) in the body such as bacteria found in the mouth and in the intestine that help with the regular functioning of the body. Unlike the  bugs, they are welcomed by the body as they cause no harm.

What is Inflammation?

An inflammation occurs when your body’s defense army known as white blood cells are at work fighting a microorganism or foreign object in the body. Let’s say you accidentally get a splinter (happens to us all), and suddenly you notice the area gets really red and hot and may even begin to swell up;this is an example of inflammation. Your body sends its army to the area to fight off the foreign object and is on standby to attack any bugs that would want to sneak in and take advantage. 

Types of Infection

Bacterial

Bacteria can be found everywhere, your mobile screen, laptop, door handles and surfaces. Not all bacteria are harmful, and some even contribute towards having a healthy gut. Bacteria is a microscopic organism (can only be seen under a microscope) and can usually multiply rapidly due to its simple cell structure. Bacteria can enter your body in several ways, through mouth, nose, eyes and genitalia and open wounds. It can easily be spread through air droplets when someone coughs and sneezes, contact with the infected person, through sexual intercourse and contact with contaminated surfaces.

Viral 

Viruses are tiny microorganisms that only come alive and start to cause havoc when they enter the host’s cell (the body). It essentially hijacks a cell’s metabolic system and makes copies of its own to survive. A virus cannot reproduce and replicate outside the host cell; however it can lay dormant, waiting for the opportunity to strike. It is the cause of  many infectious diseases such as measles, herpes, the common cold and recently, SARS and Coronavirus.

Fungal Parasite

Just like viruses, parasites also depend on a host cell to survive and multiply. It feeds off the host and often causes no harm to the host; however, some parasites can cause infectious diseases. There are three main types of parasites that may cause harm once in the human body: protozoa, ectoparasites and helminths.

Types of Inflammation

Acute inflammation

Acute inflammation is the body’s immediate and adaptive response to the stimuli such as infection. It usually occurs straight after an injury or encounter with the foreign object and initiates response from the body’s defense system. In most cases, the body’s immune system will fight the infection usually by causing small blood vessels to dilate and sending an influx of blood to the area. The blood will contain the defense army mentioned earlier (neutrophils) that help to fight off the invaders and protect the surrounding skin. The major role of the neutrophils is to engulf and destroy the foreign matter, thus reducing the risk of illness and healing the affected area.1 This causes the area to appear red, warm and swollen. Acute inflammation has a short duration, lasting from minutes to days depending on the extent of the injury.

Chronic inflammation

In some cases, the body will continue to send its army (inflammatory cells) to the area, even when there is no longer danger; this is known as chronic inflammation. These inflammatory cells become erratic and begin to attack healthy cells and tissues which can cause further complications and can lead to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Crohn’s disease. Chronic inflammation persists for a long period of time and can often have a negative impact on quality of life.2Inflammation levels are usually measured by the presence of a protein in the blood known as C-Reactive protein CRP. High levels of CRP are often found in people with chronic inflammation.

Symptoms of infection and inflammation

Figure: Symptoms associated with Infection and Inflammation

Created by Aastha Malik

Treatment of Infection

Bacterial infections are commonly treated with antibiotics such as Amoxicillin and Ciprofloxacin which your doctor will prescribe for you. There are different types of antibiotics which each have a different function usually depending on the type of infection. These medications work by either killing the bacteria or preventing them from multiplying. Mild bacterial infections can be treated with oral antibiotics. If the infection is severe then you might require hospitalisation to receive the antibiotics intravenously (via the veins).

Some viral infections such as herpes and shingles can be treated with antiviral medication such as Aciclovir, however, most viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics. The symptoms are usually managed with over the counter medications for pain relief and to manage fever.

Treatments for inflammation

Treatment for chronic inflammation

If you have chronic inflammation, your GP may prescribe the following medications to help manage your symptoms:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) : These help reduce the inflammation and some can also be bought over the counter, such as ibuprofen.
  • Certain vitamin supplements such as vitamins A, C and D which promote reparation and also reduce inflammation.
  • Natural spices such as garlic, ginger and turmeric can also be effective in reducing inflammation and keeping the symptoms at bay.3

Research suggests that adopting a predominantly plant-based diet with occasional consumption of oily fish (Mediterranean diet) can help reduce inflammation. Anti-inflammatory foods such as mackerel, and leafy greens such as spinach and kale are all beneficial in managing symptoms of chronic inflammation.4

Infection vs inflammation

The Relationship between Infection and Inflammation

Infection and inflammation are often used interchangeably, however, they mean two different things. So what is the difference between infection and inflammation? 

Infection refers to the invasion and multiplication of microorganisms in the body, while inflammation is the body’s response to this invasion and is where the battle commences. An infection can cause inflammation; on the other hand, an inflammation can never cause or lead to an infection. Infection can be easily transmitted from organism to organism, however, inflammation can not be transmitted as it is not infectious.

Although infection and inflammation can be caused by pathogens and foreign objects, injury, burns, and exposure to toxic chemicals can also cause inflammation.

Summary

Infection is caused by the invasion and multiplication of pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites which leave behind toxins causing harm to the body. Inflammation is the body’s response to this invasion whereby the body sends inflammatory cells to destroy the pathogens or prevent them from multiplying. Inflammation is the aftermath of the infection where the body attempts to heal the damage and prevent further complications. Chronic inflammation occurs when the body’s inflammatory cells go into overdrive mode and begin to see every cell as a threat, even the healthy ones. This overtime leads to chronic conditions such as lupus, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Adopting a healthy diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce inflammation and keep the symptoms at bay. 

References

  1. Hannoodee S, Nasuruddin DN. Acute Inflammatory Response. 2021 Nov 21. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan–. PMID: 32310543. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32310543/
  2. Zetoune F, Serhan C, Ward P. Inflammatory Disorders☆. Reference Module in Biomedical Sciences. 2014;.
  3. Kunnumakkara A, Sailo B, Banik K, Harsha C, Prasad S, Gupta S et al. Chronic diseases, inflammation, and spices: how are they linked?. Journal of Translational Medicine. 2018;16(1).
  4. Tsigalou C, Konstantinidis T, Paraschaki A, Stavropoulou E, Voidarou C, Bezirtzoglou E. Mediterranean Diet as a Tool to Combat Inflammation and Chronic Diseases. An Overview. Biomedicines. 2020;8(7):201.

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Kadi Ajilogba

Master of Science - MS, Adult Health Nurse/Nursing, Keele University, England


With over 10 years of experience working within the healthcare industry, in both acute and mental health settings, I pride myself in being able to cater to the patient's needs using a holistic approach. I am an advocate for promoting patient safety and wellbeing and I also embrace the notion of making every contact count with patients of different backgrounds and cultures.

I have worked in mental health settings which means that I am able to deal with patients presenting with challenging behaviours or those perhaps going through a crisis. I am trained in PMVA (Prevention Management of Violence and Aggression) as well as Team Teach which looks at teaching positive behaviour management in order to support young people going through a mental health crisis.

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