Help Others Understand the Difference Between Acute, Chronic Illness

Help Others Understand the Difference Between Acute, Chronic Illness

Through the Fog

I think sometimes the reason people don’t understand why we’re “not better,” is because they don’t necessarily understand the difference between acute and chronic illness. If you have people like that in your life (and we all seem to have some), why not share this with them?

Acute means short-term, which means it has a beginning and an end. For example, the flu, a broken arm, a surgical procedure, a cold, or a headache are all considered to be acute. The term also can describe something that comes on suddenly and severely, such as a heart attack or stroke. Although you can experience these multiple times over your lifespan, they come and they go. They can be healed, either with time and/or medication.

Chronic means the illness is always present. It is long-term and ongoing. There may be things you can do to improve your symptoms, but it never goes away. Examples of chronic illnesses include diabetes, lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, hypo- or hyperthyroidism, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and many more illnesses, both autoimmune (which means your immune system attacks your cells) or non-autoimmune.

Autoimmune diseases ultimately will result in death. Non-autoimmune diseases will not, typically. Fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune disease. Your nerves and your brain appear to get mixed and unreliable messages. They tell your body to experience pain, when you have not actually hurt yourself. It is like all the wires have been crossed and no one knows how to rewire it or keep it from going haywire.

It’s so hard for people to understand because when they think of being sick, they really understand only acute illness. They know they’ll feel completely awful for awhile, but they’ll get better eventually. They are unfamiliar with the term chronic, so they don’t understand why you are not feeling/getting better. They know what sick looks like: Chills, fever, vomiting, recovery from surgery, etc. It’s not pretty. But when they see you looking “OK,” they truly don’t understand how you can be sick. That’s where some good communication and empathy come in.

I think the first step in educating people is to help them to see the difference between acute and chronic illness. That should go a long way in establishing greater understanding and a more compassionate stance. Remember, acute is typically sudden and has an end. Chronic is lifelong, barring a miracle.

What are your thoughts?

Note: Fibromyalgia News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Fibromyalgia News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to fibromyalgia.


  1. Deborah McWhae says:

    This is exactly what I need!!!! It’s something I never thought of. Now I know what to say when my sister says “you need to change Doctors as this one isn’t getting you better”. I did say I won’t get better but…….As we know people just don’t get it lol

  2. Samantha Davis says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for this article. I have FM, I was diagnosed at age 15 and I am now 31. I myself forget the difference between the two, so I really appreciate the reminder. 🙂

  3. Kathy says:

    Most doctors I see either do not believe Fibromyalgia is a chronic disease. I have been told by a Er doctor that it is all in my head. My immunologist also believes this. I have CVID also. It amazes me how many uneducated doctors there are shaming patients in this day and age. Thank you so very much for your article. It is nice to be validated.

    • Tim Bossie says:

      You’re welcome Kathy! 🙂 It is quite sad that there are still doctors who do not believe in fibromyalgia and do not diagnose it as a chronic illness. I watched my mother struggle with the pain for years until a new doctor told her what was wrong.

  4. Heather says:

    Hi Robin!
    Happy New Year 🙂 I think you have this neverending goodwill, lol! It does get hard feeling like you have not only something to prove to yourself, but I personally feel like I have to prove something to others who seemingly don’t get it. I guess I don’t expect others to get it in its entirety. However, I think I start to question the validity of my reality when others seem disinterested. I don’t understand how anyone would think that those of us with this disease like being this way. Feeling sick most of the time is not the way I choose to live, it just is. Anyhoo, you’ve heard this all before. I will try your suggestion tho of explaining acute pain vs chronic pain. Perhaps, a last attempt for validity. This comment is long! Sorry! My husband is my rock. He suggests that I stop explaining and just do and live my life in a way that helps me. Once I stop explaining, maybe others will listen.

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