What is a chronic illness?

A chronic illness is a condition that lasts for an extended period, typically for a year or longer, and requires ongoing medical attention or those that limit activities and functions. These health conditions are generally not curable but can often be managed with proper treatment and lifestyle modifications.

Chronic illnesses can affect individuals of any age, gender, or ethnic background, and they can range from mild to severe in their impact on a person's life. Some common examples of chronic illnesses include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, asthma, Crohn's disease, and multiple sclerosis (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022).

Chronic illnesses are often characterized by their persistence, slow progression, and potential for long-term complications or even social isolation if left untreated or improperly managed. Many chronic conditions require ongoing medical care, medication, lifestyle adjustments, and regular monitoring to prevent or minimize the risk of complications and maintain the best possible quality of life.

Characteristics of a chronic disease

Chronic diseases share several common characteristics that distinguish them from acute or short-term illnesses. Understanding these characteristics can help in recognizing, managing, and treating chronic conditions more effectively.

  • Long duration: Diseases that are persistent and long-lasting, typically lasting for a year or more, are considered chronic.
  • Non-communicable: These illnesses are generally not contagious or transmissible from person to person.
  • Slow progression: Chronic diseases often develop gradually and progressively worsen over time if left untreated or improperly managed.
  • Incurable but manageable: While chronic illnesses are typically incurable, their symptoms and complications can often be effectively managed and controlled through proper treatment, lifestyle modifications, and regular monitoring.
  • Multifactorial causes: Chronic diseases can result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, making prevention and management more complex.
  • Potential for complications: If left unmanaged, chronic illnesses can lead to serious complications, functional limitations, and reduced quality of life.
  • Ongoing medical care: Effective management of chronic diseases often requires ongoing medical attention, regular check-ups, and adherence to treatment plans.

Recognizing these allows healthcare practitioners to better identify, diagnose, and develop comprehensive treatment strategies for individuals with chronic illnesses, taking into account the long-term nature, potential complications, and the need for ongoing management and support.

Leading causes of chronic illnesses

Chronic illnesses can arise from various factors, including genetic predispositions, lifestyle choices, and environmental exposures. Understanding the leading causes of chronic diseases is crucial for effective prevention and management strategies, especially in public health. Here are some of the major contributors to chronic illnesses:

  • Unhealthy diet: A diet high in processed foods, saturated fats, salt, and added sugars can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes (World Health Organization, 2018).
  • Lack of physical activity: Sedentary lifestyles and insufficient physical activity are linked to increased risks of chronic conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and certain types of cancer (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022).
  • Tobacco use: Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are significant risk factors for lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cardiovascular diseases (National Cancer Institute, 2022).
  • Excessive alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol intake can lead to liver disease and certain cancers and contribute to other chronic conditions like high blood pressure and stroke.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to air pollution, chemicals, and other environmental toxins can increase the risk of respiratory diseases, cancer, and other chronic illnesses.
  • Chronic stress: Prolonged stress can weaken the immune system and contribute to the development or exacerbation of various chronic conditions, including heart disease, depression, and autoimmune disorders (American Psychological Association, 2022).
  • Genetic predisposition: Some individuals may have a higher genetic risk for certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, or neurological disorders (National Human Genome Research Institute, 2018).

Addressing these risk factors through lifestyle modifications, preventive measures, and early interventions can reduce the significant burden of chronic illnesses on individuals and health services.

Printable Chronic Illnesses List

Download this Chronic Illnesses List to provide healthcare practitioners with a comprehensive overview of chronic illnesses, their descriptions, and additional notes.

How to use this template?

This resource guide is designed to provide healthcare practitioners with a comprehensive overview of chronic illnesses, their descriptions, and additional notes. To make the most effective use of this guide, follow these simple steps:

Step 1: Refer to the list of chronic illnesses

This guide includes an extensive list of chronic illnesses, organized alphabetically for easy reference. Each illness is accompanied by a brief description highlighting its key characteristics, symptoms, and potential complications.

Step 2: Leverage the additional notes section

At the end of each condition's section, you'll find an additional notes area. This section includes recent research findings, preventive measures, lifestyle modifications, management tips, and potential complications, offering a holistic view and aiding in the creation of comprehensive treatment plans.

Step 3: Use the guide as a reference tool

This resource guide is designed to serve as a comprehensive reference tool for healthcare practitioners. Feel free to refer back to it whenever you need to refresh your understanding of a particular chronic illness or seek additional guidance on its management.

Chronic Illnesses List example (sample)

Our Chronic Illnesses List was adapted from Taylor and colleagues' (2014) appendix section on the list of long-term conditions. These are given concise descriptions to serve as a handy reference tool for any healthcare provider when working with patients. If this can be helpful for your practice, feel free to check out a preview of this resource by clicking on the link below. You can also download this locally as a PDF for easier access.

Download this free Chronic Illnesses List example here 

Chronic Illnesses List example

Benefits of having a list of chronic diseases

A comprehensive list of chronic diseases is a valuable tool for healthcare practitioners. It serves not only as an educational resource but also as a guide for preventive services, diagnosis, and chronic care management. Here are several key benefits of having this list:

  • Quick reference: A well-organized list of chronic illnesses serves as a quick reference guide, allowing healthcare practitioners to rapidly identify and familiarize themselves with various conditions, their symptoms, and potential complications.
  • Improved diagnosis: By having a broad understanding of different chronic diseases, healthcare practitioners can more accurately recognize patterns and distinguish between similar conditions, leading to more precise diagnoses.
  • Comprehensive patient care: A thorough list of chronic illnesses helps practitioners consider a wider range of potential underlying conditions, ensuring a more comprehensive approach to patient evaluation and treatment.
  • Patient education: Healthcare practitioners can use the information in the list to better explain chronic illnesses to patients, promoting a deeper understanding of their condition and encouraging active participation in their care.
  • Preventive measures: Awareness of chronic disease risk factors can enable healthcare practitioners to provide targeted preventive guidance, promoting lifestyle modifications and early interventions.

Common chronic diseases

Chronic diseases include a wide range of conditions that persist over an extended period. The following are some of the most common chronic illnesses that doctors and other practitioners frequently encounter:

Cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) refer to a group of disorders impacting the heart and blood vessels, and they represent one of the most prevalent types of chronic diseases. Comprising coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and peripheral arterial disease, among others, CVDs are the leading cause of death globally.

Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disorder that is characterized by the deterioration of cognitive functions, primarily affecting memory, thinking skills, and the ability to carry out simple tasks. It is the most common form of dementia.


Chronic forms of cancer, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and certain solid tumors, require ongoing treatment and management. Symptoms can vary depending on the type and stage of cancer.


This chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways causes wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. Triggers can include allergens, exercise, and environmental factors.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is a progressive lung disease that obstructs airflow, including conditions like emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Symptoms include persistent cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Multiple sclerosis

An autoimmune condition that affects the central nervous system, leading to various physical and cognitive symptoms, such as vision problems, numbness, and fatigue.

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American Psychological Association. (2022). Stress effects on the body. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). About chronic diseases. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/about/index.htm

National Cancer Institute. (2022). Tobacco. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/tobacco

National Human Genome Research Institute. (2018). Genetic disorders. https://www.genome.gov/For-Patients-and-Families/Genetic-Disorders

World Health Organization. (2018). Noncommunicable diseases. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/noncommunicable-diseases

Can chronic illnesses be prevented?
Can chronic illnesses be prevented?

Commonly asked questions

Can chronic illnesses be prevented?

Many chronic illnesses can be prevented or their onset delayed through healthy lifestyle choices such as maintaining a healthy diet, monitoring health statistics, exercising regularly, not smoking, and moderating alcohol consumption.

Is there a cure for chronic illnesses?

While some chronic illnesses can be managed and controlled very effectively, many do not have a cure. Treatment usually focuses on managing symptoms, improving quality of life, and preventing complications.

How do chronic illnesses impact daily life?

Chronic illnesses can impact daily life in numerous ways, including physical limitations, managing medication or treatment schedules, financial stress due to medical expenses, and emotional stress related to living with a long-term condition.

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