Healthcare professionals use various criteria to describe acute and chronic conditions. The two types of conditions have several differences in the way people experience, develop, and receive treatment for them.

Healthcare professionals can classify medical conditions as acute or chronic. Acute conditions often start suddenly and last for a short time, and they can be severe. Chronic conditions last for a long time and come on gradually. The treatments and progression of the two types of conditions can also differ.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60% of adults in the United States have a chronic disease, and about 40% of adults have two or more.

This article defines acute and chronic conditions, outlines how both types progress, and gives some examples of each type of condition.

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Acute conditions develop suddenly and often last for a short time. After experiencing an acute condition, people are likely to return to the way they were beforehand. An acute condition often has a defined cure or treatment.

While there is no single, universal definition of acute conditions, many healthcare professionals define them as lasting anywhere from less than 3 months to 6 months.

Conversely, chronic conditions develop slowly and may affect a person over an extended period. They are usually long lasting. People with chronic conditions are unlikely to return entirely to the way they were before they developed one.

The CDC broadly defines a chronic disease as one that:

  • lasts for a year or longer
  • requires ongoing medical treatment
  • limits a person’s daily activities

Healthcare organizations may have varying uses or definitions of the term “chronic conditions.” Some conditions may have overlapping diagnoses between chronic and acute due to clinical or laboratory factors that mean they do not meet the threshold for one or the other.

A person might have a subacute condition if their symptoms are midway between acute and chronic. The symptoms of a subacute condition are less severe but last longer than those of an acute condition.

Subacute conditions move slowly but can be persistent, while peracute conditions are very quick and may be severe or fatal.

Acute and chronic conditions affect people differently.

PreventionVaccines and medications may help people avoid some acute conditions.To prevent chronic conditions, people may need to change their behavior, lifestyle, and dietary habits.
OnsetAcute conditions have a sudden onset, often with no warning signs.Chronic conditions have a gradual onset and may have warning signs.
SymptomsAcute conditions often have clear, specific symptoms.Chronic conditions may have ambiguous symptoms that overlap with or are similar to those of other conditions.
DiagnosisHealthcare professionals can usually give a specific diagnosis for an acute condition.Chronic conditions often have ambiguous or unclear diagnoses or a spectrum of diagnoses.
TreatmentHealthcare professionals can usually treat acute conditions with an established cure. These conditions may also go away on their own.Chronic conditions rarely have one cure, and medication may only manage symptoms of the condition or slow its progression.
DurationAcute conditions have a short course or duration.Chronic conditions often have a lengthy course and may be lifelong.
CareHealthcare professionals usually actively treat a person for acute conditions.With chronic conditions, a person is more active during their care, often in partnership with a caregiver or healthcare team. People may also need to make lifestyle changes to manage chronic conditions.
RecoveryPeople are more likely to make a full recovery from an acute condition. People with chronic conditions may have long-term health effects and may live with the condition for their lifetime.
OutlookPeople do not often have uncertainty about their future health with acute conditions. They are also less likely to relapse. People with chronic conditions may feel uncertain about their health as they age. They may experience periods of relapse or flare-ups of the same chronic condition.

Examples of acute conditions include:

According to the CDC, examples of chronic conditions include:

Some other examples of chronic conditions are:

The following are some questions that people ask about acute and chronic conditions.

Is a fever an acute or chronic condition?

A fever can be acute or chronic, depending on how long it lasts. Healthcare professionals typically define a fever as chronic if it lasts for more than 14 days.

Is cancer an acute or chronic condition?

According to the CDC, cancer is a chronic condition.

Which is more severe, acute or chronic?

Certain chronic conditions are the leading causes of fatality and disability in the United States. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, chronic conditions account for 86% of U.S. healthcare costs.

Acute conditions often begin suddenly, last for a short time, and do not have long-term effects. Chronic conditions typically have a gradual onset, last longer, and have long-term effects.

Chronic health conditions are the most common cause of disability or fatality in the United States and account for the majority of national healthcare costs.

Acute conditions often have a known cause and a cure that a healthcare professional can administer directly, while chronic conditions may have ambiguous causes or symptoms. A person with chronic health conditions may need long-term treatment involving a team of healthcare professionals.

Preventive medications, vaccinations, and other measures may help prevent some acute conditions. People may be able to use lifestyle strategies to prevent or manage many chronic conditions.