What's the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Illnesses?

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 28, 2022
4 min read

At any given time during our lives, we will all have health problems. It can be a simple cold or something more severe like COVID. Many times, there are quick illnesses that will go away on their own. Other times, you will have health issues that can require immediate medical assistance. 

It is very important to know the differences in the severity of your condition and if what you are experiencing is a chronic vs acute illness. 

As you get older, you are at a greater risk of getting both acute and chronic illnesses, but you can be diagnosed with either at any age. Acute and chronic illnesses are very different, so they are categorized differently. The major difference is how long the symptoms will last. Acute illnesses are usually quick and very treatable. Chronic illnesses are long-term and usually require treatment for the rest of your life. 

The term acute disease is used to describe an illness that has a very rapid onset, but it usually clears up within a month. This is the opposite of chronic diseases. 

Acute illnesses like the common cold and influenza are pretty easy to recognize, but acute diseases can give way to symptoms that are severe and cause complications with some organ systems. This can include the digestive system, respiratory system, eyes, skin, liver, kidneys, and bladder. 

Acute diseases can include these very common symptoms:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear pain
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Nausea

Some examples of illnesses that are acute include viruses like the flu and rotavirus, broken bones, and infections like urinary tract infections or pink eye. At times, some acute diseases can develop into severeness and will need medical intervention. This could include appendicitis, pneumonia, pancreatitis, or acute liver and renal failure. 

A chronic illness lasts for months, years, or even a lifetime. Chronic illness often becomes more of an issue as you get older. This is especially true if you have unhealthy habits like sedentary living, smoking, or eating a lot of unhealthy food.  

The Center for Disease Control has reported that chronic diseases cause 7 of 10 deaths annually, and these diseases make up the costs of 86% of U.S. healthcare costs. 

Some of the most common chronic diseases are:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Arthritis

Depending on the area of the country you live in, some chronic illnesses are more prevalent than others. For example, obesity is very prominent in the southern United States. 

Acute illnesses are easy to diagnose and treat most times, but chronic illnesses are not easily diagnosed and treated. A person may, for instance, feel signs of pain and a few stiff joints at the beginning of arthritis setting in. Over time, these symptoms could increase in pain level and stiffness, which would make it difficult for you to ambulate easily or complete your daily tasks. 

When dealing with diabetes, initially, symptoms like being thirsty or having frequent urination may initially be mild. Many cases have no symptoms at all. As the disease gets worse, though, many complications can occur if they are not properly diagnosed and managed. Examples include neuropathy, kidney disease, and high blood pressure.

Chronic disease can have many causes. They can be hereditary, and they can come from your lifestyle choices, like being sedentary, eating badly, or smoking. Things in the environment like air pollution or secondhand smoke can also play a part in chronic illnesses. Since so many different factors add to chronic illness progression, sometimes, effective management can be an issue. 

A chronic illness will require a standard visit to your medical doctor to manage the illness and your overall health. When you meet with your doctor, they may update your treatment plan or make new recommendations for other steps you can take on your own to feel good and function better. 

Managing and tracking your illness could involve:

  • Dietary changes
  • Daily medications
  • Smoking cessation 
  • Exercise
  • Occupational or physical therapy
  • PRN or as-needed medications
  • Imaging studies like X-rays, CAT scans, or MRI scans
  • Counseling

If you are fortunate, treating and managing chronic diseases can involve lifestyle changes alone. If your doctor has prescribed necessary medications or another therapy, your best outcomes will manifest by sticking with their treatment plan closely and making all doctor appointments. 

If your acute illness doesn’t go away on its own, you may go to see your doctor. After a diagnostic physical exam and medical review of your symptoms, your medical team will decide on the right treatment for your acute illness. Following your treatment, you can often make a complete recovery from your acute injury or illness. 

Depending on what type of sickness you have, treatment can include:

  • Over-the-counter medicines
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Prescription medicines 
  • Home care and rest

With an acute illness, we are expected to enjoy a full recovery after suffering for a short period. Unfortunately, full recovery is not characteristic of chronic illnesses. With a chronic disease, many symptoms are caused by the actual illness, like fatigue and pain. 

If a chronic illness causes you pain, you may eventually suffer from depression. This is especially true if your treatment does not relieve symptoms, like chronic pain. You may feel overwhelmed, helpless, and frustrated. 

Because chronic illnesses have such a complicated nature, finding ways to improve the quality of life by relieving symptoms is a necessary task. Cures are not always a possibility, but management of your symptoms can be. 

This will often go well beyond medication. It may include:

  • Physical activity 
  • Mindfulness 
  • Healthy eating 
  • Relaxation techniques 
  • Positive thinking

Techniques like these have proven to be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of chronic disease.