What Does It Mean to Have a Chronic Condition?

How it differs from an acute condition

Man taking medicine
Getty

The word "chronic" is used in medicine to refer to any disease or condition that persists over time or is frequently recurring. The term "chronic" is often used in contrast to the word "acute," which refers to a disease or condition that comes on rapidly.

An acute illness usually starts and becomes a problem, sometimes a serious problem, very quickly. An example of an acute illness is a heart attack.

A person may be fine one moment, but having a life-threatening medical emergency mere minutes later, requiring emergency medical attention.

In many ways, while chronic disease may seem less scary than acute ones, chronic diseases are a greater burden on patients and the U.S. healthcare system. As treatments improve for acute illnesses and they are resolved successfully more often, chronic conditions require years of medical management.

In the United States, 25 percent of adults suffer from at least two chronic conditions. For example, consider an overweight person who has both diabetes and heart disease. 

An Example of a Chronic Condition

Dysthymia is a type of chronic depression in which a person may have symptoms that are less severe than major depressive disorder but that linger for at least two years (or one year in children and adolescents). Although dysthymia is less severe than major depression, its long-lasting nature can make it difficult for an affected person to function in his or her daily life.

It may also put the person at an increased risk for suicide.

About half of those with dysthymia will have an episode of major depression at some point in their lives. When an episode of major depression is layered on top of dysthymia, this is referred to as double depression. Treatment for dysthymia usually includes antidepressant medication and/or psychotherapy.

Other Chronic Diseases and Conditions

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic diseases and conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems.

Many of the most common chronic conditions in the U.S. are the result of bad habits such as poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. These contribute to years of chronic disease management and often also increased mortality as well as the dramatic rise in healthcare spending in the U.S. over the past few decades.

This is why an increasing focus on disease prevention has developed in recent years through tobacco cessation, improved nutrition, and increased physical activity. Here's a list of some other common chronic diseases and conditions:

  • ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease)
  • Alzheimer's Disease and other Dementias
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Diabetes
  • Eating Disorders
  • Heart Disease
  • Obesity
  • Oral Health
  • Osteoporosis
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) Syndrome

Sources:

"Chronic Disease Overview." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 20, 2016.

"Chronic Diseases and Conditions." New York State Department of Health. May 2015.

Continue Reading