An acute illness is an illness that onsets very rapidly and is of short duration. A classic example is the so-called stomach flu. While acute conditions may not last long, they can be very dangerous and in some cases are deadly. Management of these types of illnesses requires determining what is making someone sick so that a treatment plan can be developed. Many people recover from most types of acute illness with self care at home but in other cases treatment in a hospital is necessary.
Signs of acute illness onset rapidly. Someone may feel very healthy and abruptly experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, coughing, aches and pains, confusion, skin rash, and so forth. Clusters of symptoms appearing together can provide information about the nature of an illness. Causes can include allergies, drug reactions, infections with microorganisms, and autoimmune disorders.
In some cases, the illness runs its course on its own. Supportive therapy such as rest and fluids can help the patient feel more comfortable while recovering. Other cases require medical intervention. Acute illness can cause severe dehydration, for example, which can cause permanent damage. Some people may also develop infections that could lead to death or disability if left untreated.
There are some signs that can help people differentiate between an acute illness like a cold that can be managed at home and one like flesh-eating disease that requires medical attention. As a general rule, if a patient develops a high fever, has difficulty breathing, or experiences neurological symptoms like confusion, slurred speech, or extreme fatigue, the patient needs to see a doctor. Severe pain can also be a sign of a serious disease that needs to be treated at a hospital.
Doctors prefer patients to be safe rather than sorry. If someone has an acute illness and there are concerns that medical treatment is needed, it is better to take the patient to a clinic or hospital for evaluation than to sit at home wondering if a doctor is needed. The best case scenario is that the doctor will examine the patient, determine that he or she will recover independently, and send the patient home.
The opposite of an acute illness is a chronic illness. Chronic illnesses have a slow onset and long duration. Some can eventually lead to death. Chronic illnesses require long term management with lifestyle, medication, diet, and other changes.