Inflammation is the first response of the immune system to infection or irritation. Inflammation is characterized by the following: redness, heat, swelling, pain and dysfunction of the organs involved.
Inflammation has two main components - cellular and exudative.
The exudative component involves the movement of fluid, usually containing many important proteins such as fibrin and immunoglobulins (antibodies). Blood vessels are dilated upstream of an infection (causing redness and heat) and constricted downstream while capillary permeability to the affected tissue is increased, resulting in a net loss of blood plasma into the tissue - giving rise to swelling. The swelling distends the tissues, compresses nerve endings, and thus causes pain.
The cellular component involves the movement of white blood cells from blood vessels into the inflamed tissue. The white blood cells, or leukocytes, take on an important role in inflammation; they extravasate (filter out) from the capillaries into tissue, and act as phagocytes, picking up bacteria and cellular debris. They may also aid by walling off an infection and preventing its spread.
Neutrophils are characteristic of inflammation in the early stages - they are the first cells to appear in an infected area, and any section of recently inflamed (within a couple of days or so) tissue viewed under a microscope will appear packed with them. They are easily identified by their multilobed nuclei and granular cytoplasm and perform many important functions, including phagocytosis and the release of extracellular chemical messengers. Neutrophils only live for a couple days in these interstitial areas, so if the inflammation persists for a longer duration then they are gradually replaced by longer-lived monocytes.
When inflammation overwhelms the whole organism, systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) is diagnosed. When it is due to infection, the term sepsis is applied. Vasodilation and organ dysfunction are serious problems that may lead to septic shock and death.