Aggravate vs Exacerbate: What’s the Difference?

Aggravate vs exacerbate is a confusing question because the words are synonyms in many instances, but have subtle differences when talking about injuries.

Aggravate and exacerbate are two tricky words in the English language because they are so similar in meaning. People often use them interchangeably, but they are not quite the same in meaning. 

To use the English language skillfully, you need to understand the different nuances of similar words like these. This guide will help you define these words, so you can use them appropriately in your writing.

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What Is The Difference Between Aggravate Vs Exacerbate?

Aggravate Vs Exacerbate

Both aggravate and exacerbate are verbs. Knowing when to use them starts with learning their definitions.

Definition of Aggravate

The word aggravate is a transitive verb that has a few different meanings. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it this way:

  • To make worse, serious or more severe
  • To rouse to displeasure or anger by goading
  • To create inflammation

Here are some examples:

  • Tripping on the step aggravated his pre-existing condition in his ankle.
  • Stop aggravating your sister by continuing to pester her.

This word can also be an adjective in its past participle form, as in these examples:

  • She found him aggravating, so she stopped responding to his texts.
  • The aggravating blister on his foot made the hike difficult.

Synonyms for Aggravate

Some words that mean the same thing as aggravate include:

  • Irritate
  • Bother
  • Annoy
  • Exasperate
  • Chafe
  • Spite
  • Vex

Etymology of Aggravate

Aggravate comes from the Latin word aggravatus, which means “to weigh down, burden, press, or make worse.” Its first known use was in 1530, so the word has been part of the English language for a while.

Aggravation is a form of the word aggravate. It is the noun form that refers to an item or circumstance that is aggravating to a person. 

Definition of Exacerbate

Exacerbation meaning
Exacerbate makes a temporary increase in symptoms

Merriam-Webster defines exacerbate as “to make more violent, bitter or severe.” This is also a transitive verb. This definition is nearly identical to the first definition of aggravate.

Some example sentences that use exacerbate properly include:

  • The new law didn’t help, but rather exacerbated the problem.
  • The disinformation that is thrown about on social media exacerbates the attempt to help people understand their options.
  • Her unwillingness to change exacerbated their disagreement.

Like aggravate, exacerbate’s past participle form can be used as an adjective, as in:

  • He found the new roadblock exacerbating as he tried to reach his final destination.
  • The unemployment problem was exacerbating when the community tried to get people off of government aid after the pandemic.

Synonyms for Exacerbate

According to the thesaurus, these are some synonyms for exacerbate:

  • Complicate
  • Worsen
  • Amplify
  • Deepen
  • Intensify
  • Magnify

Etymology of Exacerbate

Exacerbate has its roots in the Latin word exacerbates. This word root means to make worse or irritate. Its first known use happened in 1660. 

Exacerbate also has a noun form, exacerbation. This word is commonly used to talk about a circumstance that exasperated a problem. 

When To Use Aggravate Vs Exacerbate

These two words can be used interchangeably in many instances when they are talking about frustration or annoyance. However, aggravate, when referring to a pre-existing condition or injury, typically refers to a permanent change in the condition, while exacerbate makes a temporary increase in symptoms. Here is an example:

  • The employee with degenerative disc disease from aging found that his work aggravated his condition, making it impossible for him to continue in that position.
  • The employee with degenerative disc disease from aging found that his workplace injury exacerbated the problem, so he had to take some time off to heal.

In the first sentence, the employee’s condition was permanently made worse by his work, while the second sentence shows that a work injury made it temporarily worse. 

The Addition of Exasperate

Finally, the word exasperate can further confuse this discussion. In general, exasperate is the word of choice when talking about annoying someone, while exacerbate refers to making something more severe or more bitter. In formal writing, writers often choose exacerbate instead of exasperating.

A Final Word On Aggravate Vs Exacerbate

Aggravate and exacerbate are interchangeable words, but aggravate carries the connotation of annoyance or a permanent change in an injury, while exacerbate has the connotation of worsening or a temporary change in an injury.

In modern American usage, exacerbate is typically the more formal of the two words, but either can be correct. The difference is found primarily when talking about injuries and injured workers because aggravate is the more permanent of the two words. If you liked this post, you might also be interested in our lying vs. laying explainer.

FAQs on Aggravate vs Exacerbate

What Is The Difference Between Aggravate And Exacerbate?

Aggravate means to annoy or to permanently worsen a medical condition. Exacerbate means to make something worse or more bitter or to temporarily worsen a medical condition. The two words are synonyms in certain uses.

Are exacerbate and exasperate the same?

These synonyms are similar, but not the same. Exasperate typically refers to annoying someone, while exacerbate refers to making a bad situation worse.

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  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.