Chronic Disease vs. Communicable Disease: What’s The Difference?

View all blog posts under News and Articles | View all blog posts under Public Health

Blue DNA strings

Chronic and communicable diseases affect millions of people across the world each year. However, each type of disease manifests differently. According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, chronic diseases have durations of three or more months, are not typically passed from one person to another and cannot be cured. Communicable diseases are caused by microorganisms, such as bacteria or parasites, that can be spread from person to person or from animal to person, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Chronic Diseases

In 2018, the WHO stated that seven out of 10 deaths are caused by noncommunicable, or chronic, diseases annually across the globe. These diseases, such as heart disease, arthritis, cancer and diabetes, are typically brought on by excessive or harmful use of tobacco and alcohol, unhealthy diets and lack of physical exercise. While the progression of these diseases can be slowed by early detection and the use of medications, they cannot be cured or prevented by vaccinations.

According to the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease (PFCD), 191 million Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease, with 75 million Americans suffering from more than two chronic diseases. Not only are these chronic diseases affecting the quality of life of the individual, but they also have significant economic impacts. These illnesses drive up health care costs and often result in loss of business productivity through absenteeism. A 2016 report by the Milken Institute listed the annual U.S. spend on chronic health conditions at $1.1 trillion, with diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and osteoarthritis requiring the highest spending. However, once the indirect costs of lost productivity and income are factored in, the resulting cost for chronic disease in the U.S. is $3.7 trillion.

Chronic Disease Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a 2014 report stating the failure to prevent and manage chronic disease is a result of a lack of collaboration between public health and health care systems. This situation highlights the need for public health professionals to take the lead in preventing and detecting early signs of chronic conditions. Public health professionals can make a difference in disease prevention by supporting public policies that expand health coverage, improving access to information and educational programs, and leading communities in making better health decisions.

Communicable Diseases

Public health officials face additional challenges in preventing communicable diseases, which are also called infectious or contagious diseases. Communicable diseases are easily spread via bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi through contact with other people or animals.

The most prevalent communicable diseases are HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and lower respiratory tract infections, according to the WHO. Pneumonia is another communicable disease that can cause the death of very young children and is especially fatal for infants who have low birth weight or compromised immune systems.

Today, the global rate of communicable diseases is declining thanks to advancements in vaccination programs and drug development; however, infectious diseases still pose a significant danger. For example, increasing international travel raises the risk of transferring contagious microorganisms from one country to another. In the last five years, the U.S. has seen cases of Ebola, Zika and avian flu that did not originate in the country. Fortunately, public health professionals are making great strides in raising awareness of public health threats of infectious diseases. Health experts have begun research on the prevention of ‘superbugs’ which are resistant to current antimicrobial drugs. This research could lead to breakthroughs in vaccines, while public awareness campaigns have been launched to influence the general public about the dangers of antibiotic dependency.

Role of Public Health Officials

Because communicable diseases and chronic diseases have distinctive characteristics, public health specialists use different tactics to prevent and respond to them. With a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, these professionals can learn strategies for educating communities about disease prevention based on their unique needs. For example, public health officials might organize programs to provide physical laborers with literature that teaches them the correct posture to maintain optimal musculoskeletal integrity and prevent chronic back pain. Other programs may offer public hygiene recommendations during winter to prevent spread of infectious diseases like the flu. With further collaboration between public health professionals, efforts to prevent both communicable and chronic diseases can continue to experience success.

Learn More

The online Master of Public Health program at the University of Nevada, Reno can help give students the tools they need to enter the health care profession with the appropriate training and a firm grasp of key concepts. Find out more about our comprehensive curriculum and apply today.


Suggested Readings

What Is The CDC’s Response to The Zika Virus in the U.S.?

Zika Reclassification: Comparing ‘Apples & Mangos’

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Public Health



Alameda County Public Health Department, Division of Communicable Disease Control & Prevention

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chronic Disease Overview

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Care System Collaboration to Address Chronic Diseases: A Nationwide Snapshot From State Public Health Practitioners

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: Health Educators and Community Health Workers

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health and Health Care Collaboration

CNN Health, “How to stop superbugs from killing 10 million people a year”

Milken Institute, “The Cost of Chronic Diseases in the U.S.”

National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, “Why We Need Public Health to Improve Healthcare”

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Use Your Words Carefully: What is a Chronic Disease?”

Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, “What is the Impact of Chronic Disease on America”

World Health Organization Africa, Communicable Diseases

World Health Organization, Infectious Diseases

World Health Organization, “World leaders join new drive to beat noncommunicable diseases”