What is an Acute Illness?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2018
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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.


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Post 3

@Cupcake15- I totally agree with you. I had food poisoning the other day and I was so sick that I vomited a few times. It was terrible. What I really hated about it was that the next evening after I had been able to keep my bland food down, I was starving, but I couldn’t eat anything.

I also developed really bad headaches and it was probably a result from not being able to drink my coffee.

Post 2

@BrickBack - I know what you mean. I wanted to add that rash illnesses due to allergies is also another acute illness. My daughter is allergic to the chemicals that they put on the Christmas trees.

She breaks out in hives and I have to give her allergy medicine every time she touches one of these trees. As soon as she gets the medicine the rash goes away which is really how you would define an acute illness.

I think that one of the worst acute illnesses has to be a stomach virus though. I think that vomiting has to be one of the most uncomfortable conditions that you can experience especially if you have stomach virus because usually

you don’t stop vomiting for at least a day or two. This can make eating anything scary because you don’t know if you will be able to keep it down.

There is only so much flat soda and crackers that you can eat. I recently read that this virus typically is transmitted by touching an unsanitary surface or shaking hands with someone that does not wash their hands. This is why I always tell my kids to wash their hands and I even carry hand sanitizer with me.

Post 1

I know that dealing with an acute illness like an Influenza illness is much easier than coping with a chronic illness. Getting the flu is difficult to endure but at least the illness is temporary and you will get better.

You can also get the flu vaccine once you recover to limit the chances of developing the illness again. I always have my children get a flu vaccine because if not they will get sick a few times a year because of germs that are spread at school.

With a chronic condition like diabetes, the HIV illness, or cancer they are usually conditions that you treat for the rest of your life and some days are worse

than others. There are many people that live with diabetes and live normal lives eating sugar free foods and monitoring their blood sugar.

HIV and cancer are also manageable depending on the stage of the disease. The nice thing is that with advances in medicine many people diagnosed with HIV are no longer subjected to a death sentence as many people live with the condition for decades without succumbing to the disease.

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