Chronic vs. Acute Diseases: What’s the Difference?

The difference between acute vs. chronic illnesses may seem straightforward. In broad terms, acute disease happens suddenly and is limited in duration, while chronic illness is long-lasting and may worsen with time. However, the distinction between the two is not so simple and may vary depending on who you consult and the sources that you reference. This article explains the difference between chronic illness and acute disease, including the variety in phases, and debunks the common flaws in the definitions.

As always, make sure to consult a healthcare professional if you are experiencing symptoms of any disease, either acute or chronic. Choosing a Corus Advantage affiliated provider will guarantee quality treatment and expert results.

Without further ado, read below to learn about the difference between acute and chronic illness and specific chronic and acute illness examples for better understanding of both types of diseases.

The General Difference Between Acute vs. Chronic Illness

Most diseases are either chronic or acute. When a doctor diagnoses you for disease, these terms will help guide them on what the type of treatment is needed, the timeframe of the treatment, and how that specific treatment may affect you. Generally, when it comes to chronic illness, the disease lasts over six months and the symptoms manifest slowly and can become worse as time goes by.

On the flip side, acute disease refers to a condition that is typically brief and resolves in six months or less or a condition with quickly developing symptoms

A common misconception of chronic illnesses is that they are fatal or will shorten the patient’s life. Although at times that may be the case, it typically isn’t because some chronic conditions are manageable. However, there is no cure for chronic illness. Some examples of chronic disease include high blood pressure and diabetes.

On the other hand, acute disease might be severe in onset, but the condition lasts for a limited time as the patient improves in health. Much of the speedy recovery process happens naturally, but medications can fasten recovery. Some examples of acute illnesses include bronchitis, asthma attacks, burns, the common cold, strep throat, and pneumonia.

If a healthcare expert believes that a newly diagnosed medical condition doesn’t have a cure, it is often labelled as a chronic illness like arthritis. However, some experts apply this definition to functional, visual, or developmental disabilities that need ongoing management or care. Below, find a few other examples of acute illnesses:

  • Injury
  • Laryngitis
  • Infections
  • Viruses like the common flu
  • Bronchitis

Below, find a few other examples of chronic illnesses:

  • Asthma
  • Heart disease
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Osteoporosis

The Difference Between the Illnesses’ Phases

A significant difference between acute vs. chronic illness is the phases of each type of illness. Sometimes, a chronic or an acute diagnosis isn’t set in stone. For example, an acute disease can shift into chronic, while a chronic illness may suddenly show symptoms of an acute condition. Additionally, specific infections may progress from the acute phase to the chronic phase.

A chronic illness can also go undetected for years, only to manifest with new and usually serious acute issues. For instance, this could be the case with hepatitis C and syphilis.
Typically, both of these diseases begin with acute symptoms that can disappear spontaneously, making the patient believe that the infection is gone. However, if the condition is not treated properly, it can progress and emerge years later with new conditions like liver failure (in the case of hepatitis C) or tertiary syphilis.

This same scenario can happen with disorders like psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. These non-infectious conditions are chronic because they don’t have a cure. However, these conditions can have recurring flares in which the person experiences acute symptoms that develop and go away.

Some chronic illnesses can remain subclinical and never show acute symptoms by getting diagnosed early and starting treatment as soon as possible. For example, HIV, high cholesterol, or hypercholesterolemia can be detected and treated before there are any evident symptoms.

Are There Any Problems with These General Definitions?

The direct definitions of acute and chronic illness fall short when it comes to their timeframes. For instance, the timeframes referring to chronic illness (six months and more) and acute illness (six months or less) can be challenged because they do not suggest what illness the patient is facing.

An example of this is acute flu and acute hepatitis C or HIV and multiple sclerosis. In these examples, the first one is a chronic infection that can be managed with antiretroviral drugs, while the latter is a chronic disease that progresses despite receiving treatment.

Overall, labelling a disease as chronic or acute doesn’t describe its nature or its predicted outcomes. These direct definitions may pose issues for healthcare professionals, their patients and the scientists that search for ways to evaluate the courses of an illness. Sometimes, the illnesses’ timeframes can change from six to three months or are even extended for over a year, adding more confusion.

Some public health authorities find these definitions complicated as well. For instance, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMMS) lists 19 chronic diseases, while the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lists 20, including cancer, autism, and stroke.

How To Better Understand the Differences

As you can see, the difference between a chronic and an acute illness is not so simple to define. These terms can sometimes create confusion, especially for patients. For instance, can you consider cancer a chronic disease when only a handful (like multiple myeloma) can be chronically managed? Or, is a traumatic injury, such as a broken wrist, acute even if it doesn’t fit the term exactly?

Instead of adhering to a long list of conditions and a specific timeframe, healthcare experts recommend relying on definitions that reveal the concepts behind these terms more generally. According to Merriam-Webster, chronic is when something continues or repeatedly occurs for an extended timeframe, while acute is when something happens suddenly and lasts a short period of time.

Another definition of acute illness and chronic illness claims that acute diseases are typically isolated to one body area and respond to treatment. On the other hand, chronic or long-term diseases commonly involve more than one bodily system and may have an uncertain future.

In conclusion, we recommend educating yourself about the concepts by asking a healthcare professional any questions you may have. This way, you will understand your diagnosis better and know what you should expect and the possible treatment options available to you.

Schedule an Appointment Today

If you are concerned about a chronic or acute disease and need professional guidance, visit the Corus Advantage directory. These affiliated physicians are highly trained professionals who are empathetic, skilled, and experienced when it comes to acute and chronic diseases.

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