A chronic illness is a mental or physical disorder that lasts for a long time, perhaps even a lifetime.
Chronic (KRAH-nik) illnesses are different from illnesses such as flu or chickenpox, in which a person becomes sick for a short time and then returns to health. These short-term illnesses are called acute (a-KYOOT) illnesses. Unlike people with acute illnesses, people with chronic illnesses usually do not return completely to normal health. The illness does not go away, even when the symptoms are controlled.
Some chronic illnesses are caused by environmental factors such as exposure to pollutants. Coal miners may breathe so much coal dust in the air that they begin to show symptoms of a chronic lung disorder called black lung disease. Bacteria or viruses can cause chronic illnesses. For example, Lyme disease, a bacterial disease spread by the bite of ticks, causes an acute flulike illness at first, but it also can cause long-term joint, heart, and nervous system problems that may not show up for months or years. Some chronic illnesses are progressive. Progressive illnesses such as muscular dystrophy * , cystic fibrosis * , multiple sclerosis * , Parkinson's disease * , or Alzheimer's (ALTS-hy-mer) disease * can get worse as time passes.
When doctors diagnose a chronic illness, they also recommend treatments that can relieve symptoms or keep the body functioning at its healthiest. Sometimes treatments involve medications the doctor prescribes. Sometimes managing the illness also depends on behaviors the ill person can do to remain as healthy as possible, such as making changes in diet, quitting smoking, or exercising more. People with chronic illness seem to do best when they work as partners with their doctors to take an active role in caring for their health.
The symptoms of many chronic illnesses can be controlled with medication or changes in diet and activity. For example, people with diabetes (dy-a-BEE-teez) are unable to process sugars properly for use by the body. By taking insulin * or other medications and by eating properly, people with diabetes can lead very active, normal lives. Bobby Clarke, who played professional ice hockey for many years, is an example of a person with diabetes who has had a vigorous and demanding career, even though he has needed to take insulin every day.
Accepting that one must live with the limitations of a chronic illness can be difficult. How people react to the diagnosis of a chronic illness and how they cope depend partly on the nature of the illness and the age and resilience of the person. The changes they believe the illness will make in their lives and how the illness will change their family and social support also influence how people cope. Many people go through a process of grieving for the health and freedom of activity that they have lost. They may also feel anger, depression, and worry when they find out that they have a chronic disease.
Self-image and self-esteem * may suffer when a person must cope with a chronic illness, especially if that illness is painful or imposes limitations that interfere with social activities, school, or work. Chronic illness may be difficult for other family members, who frequently must take on additional responsibilities at home. Many chronic illnesses may get better or go into remission, only to reappear unexpectedly, sometimes with worse symptoms. Uncertainty about the course of the illness can be stressful. This uncertainty also may make planning for vacations or special activities difficult.
Support groups dedicated to specific illnesses are often effective in helping the person with a chronic illness and that person's caregivers make emotional and physical adjustments to the disease. Counseling and therapy for both the chronically ill person and caregivers or family members may help people find ways of dealing with the stress of chronic illness. Many people with chronic illness, even children, cope well with their condition and find ways of adjusting to their disease and leading full and meaningful lives.
See also Depressive Disorders: Overview • Disability • Stress and StressRelated Illness
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Sottile, Leah. “Living Sick and Dying Young in Rich America.” The Atlantic. December 19, 2013. Also available online as http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/living-sick-and-dyingyoung-in-rich-america/282495/ (accessed November 28, 2015).
Center for Managing Chronic Disease. “What Is Chronic Disease?” http://cmcd.sph.umich.edu/what-is-chronic-disease.html (accessed November 28, 2015).
MedlinePlus. “Living with a Chronic Illness - Reaching out to Others.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000602.htm (accessed November 28, 2015).
Center for Managing Chronic Disease. 1415 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109. Telephone: 734-763-1457. Website: http://cmcd.sph.umich.edu/ (accessed November 28, 2015).
* muscular dystrophy (DIS-tro-fee) is a group of inherited disorders that causes muscle weakening that worsens over time.
* cystic fibrosis (SIS-tik fy-BRO-sis) is a disease that causes the body to produce thick mucus that clogs passages in many of the body's organs, including the lungs.
* multiple sclerosis (skluh-ROsis), or MS, is an inflammatory disease of the nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body. MS can result in paralysis, loss of vision, and other symptoms.
* Parkinson's disease is a disorder of the nervous system that causes shaking, rigid muscles, slow movements, and poor balance.
* Alzheimer's disease (ALTS-hymerz) is a condition that leads to gradually worsening loss of mental abilities, including memory, judgment, and abstract thinking, as well as changes in personality.
* genes (JEENS) are chemical structures composed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that help determine a person's body structure and physical characteristics. Inherited from a person's parents, genes are contained in the chromosomes found in the body's cells.
* insulin is a kind of hormone, or chemical produced in the body, that is crucial in controlling the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood and in helping the body use glucose to produce energy. When the body cannot produce or use insulin properly, a person must take insulin or other medications.
* self-esteem is the value that people put on the mental image they have of themselves.