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.