chronic illnessLast updated
There are many terms to describe a chronic illness, and no single agreed-upon definition. Most medical organizations agree that a chronic illness is a long-lasting illness that may be communicable (like HIV and AIDS) or noncommunicable (like diabetes). Some chronic illnesses, like certain types of heart disease, may be preventable; others, like some types of autoimmune disease, may not. Although a chronic illness can be treated and managed, most will not be “cured” in the sense that they will never be fully and permanently gone. However, some people with chronic illnesses may experience periods of remittance or recovery. Given this, it’s important to remember that not every person with a chronic illness will display symptoms on an ongoing basis. In fact, many people with chronic illnesses face similar stigmas as people who may have no “obvious” signs of disability.
Additionally, not every person with a chronic illness will consider themselves to have a disability (nor is every disability an illness). Following the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience. If that’s not possible, rely on person-first language such as “person with a chronic illness,” or to specify the illness (if appropriate and necessary to your coverage). Similarly, not using phrasing like “the chronically ill” ensures coverage considers the specifics of people’s situations and experiences and does not define them by their health status.
Chronic illnesses encompass a wide range of illnesses, with many types of symptoms and prognoses. Chronic illnesses can affect anyone: As with any disability-related experience, it’s important to speak with a diverse group of sources about any given illness. A lack of diversity among sources can contribute to stereotypes of certain illnesses or related experiences, and gloss over differences related to race or socioeconomic status. This is especially important when covering chronic illnesses that may not seem to be “obviously” affected by such factors. For instance, the autoimmune disease lupus is more common in women generally, but particularly common among women of color, who may experience more severe variations of the disease. It’s important to consider and include as much of this variation in experience as possible.
There are also several illnesses that are now considered chronic but historically were not. For instance, with current treatment standards, a person with HIV has around the same average life span as a person who does not have HIV. Similarly, some types of cancer can now be considered chronic illnesses.
Generally, “illness” or “chronic illness” is the clearest term. “Condition” is not usually a specific medical term, unless describing a current state (i.e., “stable condition”).
There are many types of chronic illnesses and experiences. Although not every person with a chronic illness will consider themselves to have a disability, some people with chronic illnesses may face similar stigmas as people who may have no “obvious” signs of disability. Following the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience. Similarly, not using phrasing like “the chronically ill” ensures coverage considers the specifics of people’s situations and experiences and does not define them by their health status.