A Medical Definition of Acute Cancer and Other Illnesses

Learn more about the meaning of this common medical term

Acute leukemia cells
Acute leukemia cells. Ed Reschke/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The medical definition of the term acute cancer applies to many other health conditions as well. When doctors describe a condition as "acute," they are simply referencing an injury or pain that occurs suddenly and generally lasts for a short period of time.

One may have acute leukemia, acute bronchitis or even acute bipolar disorder. Strokes, appendicitis and respiratory problems may be described as acute as well.

While acute refers to a health condition that has surfaced suddenly, it does not indicate the severity of the illness. It exclusively describes the rapid onset of symptoms or illness or the short period of time that the symptoms or illness lasts. Accordingly, patients told that their medical condition is acute should not assume the worst.

Misconceptions About the Term 

While a sudden rush of symptoms may be frightening, they do not mean that patients will not be able to overcome the medical condition in question. Acute appendicitis, for example, is extremely common, and patients manage to triumph in such cases every day, thanks to alert and fast-acting healthcare professionals.

Acute's Use in Cancer Cases

In cancer cases, the term acute is often applied to lymphoblastic leukemia. This cancer begins in the bone marrow, the location where new blood cells develop. Doctors describe lymphoblastic leukemia as acute when the cancer rapidly infiltrates the blood and travels to other areas of the body, such as the brain and spinal cord, lymph nodes, spleen or, in boys and men, the testicles.

The Difference Between Acute and Subacute

Closely related to the term acute is subacute. In subacute health conditions, the symptoms or illness may not come on as swiftly as symptoms or illnesses do in acute cases. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing the most rapid onset, a patient with an acute medical condition may say that their symptoms came on with the swiftness of a 9 or 10.

On the other hand, a patient with a subacute illness may say that their symptoms came on with the swiftness of a 5 or 6. 

The Difference Between Acute and Chronic

The opposite of acute symptoms or illness is chronic symptoms or illness. While acute disease comes on quickly or lasts for a short period of time, chronic symptoms come on gradually and last for lengthy periods of time. Healthcare professionals may describe a disease as chronic if symptoms last for six months or more. Sometimes doctors also describe a medical condition as chronic if there is no hope for improvement for the disease, such as with arthritis.

Unfortunately, scores of Americans live with chronic medical conditions every day. These conditions typically do not disappear after diagnosis. They include diabetes, HIV, respiratory diseases and heart disease in addition to cancer. Managing such conditions is the key to allowing patients to live their best lives in the face of disease.  


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