In Other Words: Insult—A “Sick Burn” or a Burn That Makes You Sick?

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You probably think of a rude or offensive remark when you think of the word insult, but to biomedical researchers, an insult is the cause of some kind of injury to the body. Insults can come in a variety of forms, such as an infection or a physical trauma.

Below the title “Insult: In Other Words,” two images are separated by a jagged line. On the left is a woman covering her face with both hands as an eye looks at her and a mouth shouts at her. On the right are spherical bacteria on a rough surface. Under the images, text reads: “Did you know? In biomedical science, an insult is the cause of some kind of injury to the body.”
Credit: NIGMS.

One type of injury that different kinds of insults can cause is a burn. Most commonly, insults like hot liquid or steam, structural fires, and flammable liquids cause burns. But heat, chemicals, electricity, sunlight, or radiation can also lead to them. No matter the source, burns activate the body’s inflammatory response, which usually protects it from foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, and other toxins. In some patients with severe burns, however, their immune system can overreact and actually make the injury more severe than the initial insult.

Sometimes, the immune response to an insult leads to sepsis. Most often, sepsis-inducing insults are bacterial infections, but these other insults can also be the cause:

  • Viral or fungal infections
  • Blunt-force trauma (something hitting the body and causing a concussion, deep cut, or broken bone)
  • Penetrating trauma (something piercing the skin and creating an open wound)
  • Surgery

These physical traumas can keep the immune system from functioning properly and increase the chance of a secondary infection—or an infection that occurs after treatment for an initial infection—which can both act together to cause sepsis.

So the next time someone mentions adding insult to injury, you can politely inform them that insults actually cause injuries—ones that can be life threatening.

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