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Acute Vs. Chronic: What’s the Difference?

Have you found yourself wondering, “What is the difference between acute and chronic conditions?” Learning the difference between the two is essential to understanding how they impact your life and overall well-being. Let’s take a deep dive into how to tell the difference between acute vs. chronic illness, and why that difference matters for you.

What is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Conditions?

Generally speaking, medical conditions are separated into two different categories: acute vs. chronic — but what do they mean?[1][2]

  • Acute: An acute condition is one that comes on suddenly and lasts only a short time. Think of an asthma attack, a cold or even a broken bone.
  • Chronic: A chronic condition is a long-term and often progressive condition. Conditions like arthritis, COPD or even depression are chronic conditions.

Keep in mind that an acute condition can be brought on by a chronic condition.2 For example, heart disease, which is a chronic condition, can cause a heart attack, which is an acute condition. Similarly, COPD, a chronic disease, can cause COPD exacerbations, which are an acute flare-up of symptoms. So, while the two types of conditions are separate and have separate meanings, they can be linked.

How to Acute vs. Chronic Conditions Differ?

When it comes to acute vs. chronic conditions, they differ in a variety of ways. The most obvious difference is that an acute condition lasts only a short period of time, while a chronic condition is ongoing. However, the causes, symptoms and treatments of acute vs. chronic conditions are quite different as well.

What is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Condition Causes?

Acute conditions and illness can be caused by:

  • A virus
  • An infection
  • An accident
  • An injury
  • Substance abuse
  • Chronic conditions

It can be helpful to remember that just because a condition is described as acute does not necessarily mean it’s mild, but it does mean that it can be cured or resolved. A burn caused by spilling your tea in your lap is an acute medical condition, as is pneumonia.

A chronic condition, on the other hand, is often caused by:

  • Genetics
  • Environmental factors
  • Poor health
  • Unhealthy behaviors
  • Age

Similarly to acute conditions, the severity of chronic conditions can vary quite a bit. However, a chronic condition is typically one that cannot be cured — rather, the symptoms are treated. Diabetes and high blood pressure are two common examples of a chronic conditions.

Acute vs. Chronic Symptoms

The most distinct difference in symptoms when it comes to acute vs. chronic is the speed with which they appear. Acute conditions have a sudden onset, which means symptoms appear suddenly. In some cases, these symptoms may be mild, like in the case of heat rash, while in other cases they may be quite severe, like in the case of appendicitis.

In contrast, the symptoms of chronic conditions develop slowly over time and may get progressively worse. In some cases, you might not even notice the early symptoms of a chronic condition. Typically, however, the symptoms of chronic conditions will be severe enough at some point to require treatment of some kind.

How severe they become varies depending on the condition. The symptoms of arthritis may never move beyond discomfort that can be treated with over-the-counter medication, for example, while the symptoms of a stroke may require significant medical intervention.

How are Acute vs. Chronic Conditions Treated?

Treatment for acute vs. chronic conditions can vary significantly, depending on the severity of the condition being treated. An acute condition like a cold or a headache can easily be treated at home. Even some more severe acute conditions, like asthma attacks or acute bronchitis, can usually be treated at home, though may require a doctor’s visit for medication. Other acute conditions require immediate medical attention, like broken bones, acute respiratory distress syndrome or organ failure.

Regardless of the type of treatment required or how swiftly treatment is needed, an acute condition can typically be treated and cured. That means a patient with an acute condition usually recovers once they receive the necessary treatment. Ultimately, acute conditions will go away.

Treatment of a chronic condition can also vary quite a lot, though in a different way. With chronic conditions, some type of treatment is nearly always necessary at some point. However, that treatment will not cure the condition.

Chronic condition treatments are instead focused on remedying the symptoms and making the patient more comfortable. Some chronic conditions, like high cholesterol, may simply require a change in lifestyle or regular medication. Other chronic conditions, like chronic bronchitis or congestive heart failure, may require medication along with other medical interventions to ensure patient safety and quality of life.

Can Acute and Chronic Conditions Overlap?

There can sometimes be a lot of overlap when it comes to acute vs. chronic conditions, which can be confusing. While acute and chronic conditions are distinct and different in the way they appear and resolve, they may be related sometimes. One may even cause the other.

In some cases, acute conditions can lead to chronic conditions. This can occur because the acute condition is the first symptom of an acute condition. For example, a patient’s first asthma attack, an acute condition, can then lead to the diagnosis of chronic asthma.2 Acute conditions can also lead to chronic conditions if the acute condition causes damage. An example of this is when a heart attack, which is an acute condition, causes heart failure, a chronic condition.[3]

In other cases, an acute condition is a symptom of a chronic condition. For example, people with COPD, a chronic illness, can experience an acute flare-up of symptoms called a COPD exacerbation. While the exacerbation will eventually resolve, the COPD itself will not. Similarly, patients with chronic bronchitis may have episodes of acute bronchitis during which their symptoms worsen for a period of time.[4]

Moreover, there can be some conditions that are difficult to define. For example, cancer is listed as a chronic disease by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, even though it can be cured in many cases.[5] Similarly, a broken hip may be an acute condition, but it can cause chronic arthritis.[6]

Because of this, some medical experts are calling for a broader definition of chronic conditions to help those suffering from them.6 This could be profoundly beneficial as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 6 in 10 adults in the United States has a chronic disease, and 4 in 10 have two or more chronic diseases.[7] The CDC has also found that chronic conditions are the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S., as well as the leading drivers of the United States’ $3.8 trillion in annual health care costs.7

Learn Whether You Have an Acute vs. Chronic Condition

Regardless of whether you think you have an acute or a chronic condition, you should seek care if it’s clear that your health has changed. An acute condition can be an early indicator of a chronic condition or, in some cases, could lead to a chronic condition. In other cases, a chronic condition can slowly sneak up on you, but the longer you wait, the harder it will be to treat successfully. As such, it is important to take your health concerns seriously. Understanding what is the difference between acute and chronic conditions can help.

If you have symptoms of any condition that are unexplained or have lasted for a long time, see your doctor. Similarly, if you have acute conditions that seem to return, talk to your doctor about how often they come back and whether they seem worse each time. Ask plenty of questions to make sure that you get the information you need and can provide any additional information that may help. With accurate information, your doctor can provide you with the care you need, and may even be able to prevent the development of a chronic condition.

Sources cited:

[1] “Chronic vs. Acute Medical Conditions: What’s the Difference?” The National Council on Aging, National Council on Aging, Inc., 11 Aug. 2016, www.ncoa.org/article/chronic-versus-acute-disease.

[2] “Acute vs. Chronic Conditions: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia Image.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 10 Oct. 2020, medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/18126.htm.

[3] “Heart Failure.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 29 May 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-failure/symptoms-causes/syc-20373142.

[4] “Chronic Bronchitis.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Accessed 15 May 2021, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/chronic-bronchitis.

[5] Whitlock, Jennifer. “The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Illnesses.” Verywell Health, 25 Mar. 2020, www.verywellhealth.com/chronic-definition-3157059.

[6] Bernell, Stephanie, and Steven W Howard. “Use Your Words Carefully: What Is a Chronic Disease?” Frontiers in Public Health, Frontiers Media S.A., 2 Aug. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4969287/.

[7] “Chronic Diseases in America.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 Jan. 2021, www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/chronic-diseases.htm.


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