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What is the Difference Between a Chronic and Acute Medical Condition?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: Feb 18, 2024

There is some misunderstanding when doctors or lay people use the term acute or chronic medical condition. This has much to do with the fact that sometimes people refer to themselves as having acute pain, and acute can be defined as severe, in some instances. The trouble is, many people who have a chronic condition can be in severe pain, so the differences need to be more fully understood.

Essentially, an acute medical condition is one that is normally brief with sudden onset. If you cut yourself, or get a cold, these are considered acute conditions. They occur usually without warning.

In contrast, the chronic medical condition is one that lasts a long time and often develops slowly. If you have chronic pain, it means you suffer from pain over an extended period of time. If you have a chronic condition, it may be one that lasts a lifetime. Most autoimmune illnesses like HIV, Lupus or Hashimoto’s disease are characterized as chronic, whereas, the average cold or flu is acute. There is an end in sight and you will recover. This doesn’t mean that this type of condition is necessarily lifelong. Many people recover from a chronic conditions, but it may take longer than it would to recover from an illness that is acute.

Acute can also refer to the first stage of an illness, or its onset of symptoms. Moreover some conditions are chronic, even if there is remission of symptoms at times. For instance, you might start getting migraines. Even if there were days you don’t get migraines, but you keep getting them consistently, you would be suffering from chronic migraines, because the symptoms continue to emerge. Alternately, you might have a migraine occasionally, or have just one, in which case the condition would be considered acute.

Some illnesses may begin as acute medical conditions and become chronic. Scarlet fever, caused by the strep virus, when untreated with antibiotics can create insufficient heart function by creating bacterial endocarditis, bacterial cells growing within the heart valves. Prior to the advent of antibiotics, many people died years after having scarlet fever, due to this type of infection. What began as acute scarlet fever became a chronic condition.

An acute injury can also cause a chronic condition. If you’ve hurt your back, and treatment leaves you with residual pain, many months after the injury, you have developed chronic medical pain. Another type of chronic medical condition caused by initial acute injury is residual paralysis after an accident. What begins as acute becomes chronic.

With good medical intervention, many acute conditions never become chronic medical conditions. In some cases though, illness or injury is so severe that it cannot be cured or fully addressed with medical care. Chronic, incurable illnesses or injury are palliated, given what care is possible to help patients live as normal a life as possible.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon114715 — On Sep 29, 2010

After a fall a person develops acute pain to the knee, and once admitted to the hospital, the patient starts showing angina symptoms (a chronic condition). This person also can no longer ambulate, due to severe knee pain while trying to walk.

A hospital categorized this man as being under observation. After a seven-day stay, it was recommend he enter a rehab facility, since they could not find the cause of the pain. The rehab facility advised family they would take him but only if the family pays up front first for a full 30 day stay.

The reason medicare requires a full four-day stay as an inpatient in order for medicare to pay for rehabilitation. This is happening more and more daily, especially to the seniors. who can help?

By christensen — On Aug 02, 2010

@cupcake15: You're mixing conditions here. Depression and manic depression are both chronic conditions, but they are not the same and don't have the same treatment.

Manic depression or bipolar disorder *may* respond to treatment with lithium, which helps to regulate mood, not just serotonin levels. Depression typically responds to treatment with medications that do boost serotonin levels, called selected serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or selected serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs or SNRIs). Other medicines like monoamine oxidase inhibitors or tricyclics may also be tried.

The treatments for manic depression and depression are usually poles apart.

By subway11 — On Aug 02, 2010

Cupcake15- I just say that fibromyalgia is another chronic disorder as well. The main component of fibromyalgia symptoms is sensitivity to pain.

According to the Mayo Clinic, their transmitters in the brain that make the body feel more sensitive to pain and more reactive to pain which makes the pain feel more intense.

People with fibromyalgia often have a myriad of symptoms. These symptoms include fatigue, and dizziness, sleep disorders, depression, morning stiffness and muscle weakness.

Many doctors feel the cause of fibromyalgia is related to illness, ones genes, or a severely stressful event.

By cupcake15 — On Aug 02, 2010

Comfyshoes-the depression medical condition is also considered a chronic condition.

Depression is a lifelong condition that is treated with a combination of therapy and medication.

Depression is often a result of the chemical imbalance in the brain that brings down the serotonin levels.

Serotonin levels are associated with happiness which is why many people suffering from depression have this condition.

A number of drugs are currently available on the market to treat depression. Lithium is one of the most commonly prescribed medications that are often used to treat manic depression.

By comfyshoes — On Aug 02, 2010

Content can be a chronic disorder if it happens frequently. Often in a panic attack there is an intense or adverse reaction to something that is rooted in fear.

This irrational fear leads to chest pains upset stomach shortness of breath and can be very debilitating.

People suffering from panic attacks need to seek medical help for this condition. Often the condition can be tempered with medication and behavioral therapy.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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