What is the difference between acute and chronic illness?

The differences impact how diseases are diagnosed and treated.

A woman holding her back in pain.
Photo: Shutterstock.

The common cold, the flu, a broken arm and a toothache. What do these things have in common? They are all acute illnesses. Michigan State University Extension teaches that an acute illness is one that often comes on suddenly and is diagnosed by a healthcare provider. Following diagnosis, there is a course of treatment to be followed and a period of recovery. If all goes well, the person returns to normal health. Acute illnesses usually follow this course: becoming ill, getting worse for a while, treatment or observation of the symptoms and then getting better. In these cases, the healthcare provider knows what action to take to treat the illness, and there is also a reliance on the body’s ability to heal itself.

Chronic illnesses, on the other hand, are not so easily diagnosed and treated. They often come on slowly and continue to develop slowly. For example, a person may feel slight twinges of pain or occasional stiffening of joints at the onset of arthritis. Gradually, these symptoms may increase until the pain and stiffness make it difficult for the individual to get around or easily handle everyday tasks. In the case of diabetes, early symptoms may be mild, such as frequent urination or feeling very thirsty. Some people may feel no symptoms at all. As the disease progresses, however, complications can develop if it is not managed. These complications may include kidney disease, neuropathy and high blood pressure.

Chronic illnesses often have multiple causes. For example, heredity can play a part as can lifestyle choices such as smoking, lack of exercise and unhealthy eating habits. Environmental factors, such as secondhand smoke or air pollution, may also add to the chronic illness. With so many different factors contributing to a chronic illness, it can be challenging to find an effective treatment.

We are used to enjoying full recovery when we suffer from an acute illness; however, full recovery is not a characteristic of a chronic illness. With chronic illness, some symptoms are caused by the illness itself, such as pain and fatigue. There are also symptoms that are secondary by other symptoms. For example, if a person suffers from pain acquired from their chronic illness, they may also, in time, suffer from depression, especially if the pain isn’t relieved through treatment. This cycle of symptoms causing other symptoms can make diagnosis and treatment difficult. Those who suffer from chronic illness may also end up frustrated and helpless.

Because of the complicated nature of the chronic illness, it is necessary to find ways to alleviate symptoms to improve quality of life. While cures are not always possible, self-management of symptoms can be. That self-management often goes beyond medication and may include relaxation techniques, physical activity, positive thinking, mindfulness, and healthy eating. Alternatives such as the Personal Action Towards Health (PATH) program facilitate such techniques and have proven to be effective in helping alleviate the symptoms of chronic illness. To find out more about the PATH program or sign up for a class, visit the PATH events page.

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