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Difference Between Illness and Disease

sick-personYou may have heard about the terms illness and disease on a regular basis. Do the terms mean the same things? Well, almost, but not quite. There is some difference between the usages of the terms, so you should be careful while using them.

Illness and disease both cause the same feelings of discomfort, pain or unease in people. However, an illness is more of a subjective feeling. This means that there is really no identifiable reason behind the condition. Of course, if the condition behind the illness is identified, it is more often referred to as a disease. However, in more generalized terms, we can define an illness as a state where the person has feelings of pain or discomfort that does not have an identifiable reason.

A disease refers to a condition where the body or the parts of the body of a person does not work properly. There is usually a pathological reason behind the condition.

Pathogens are those agents that may cause a disease in a person. For instance; there may be a bacterial or a viral attack on some part of the body that causes feelings of pain and discomfort in the person. It may also include such pain or discomfort that is caused by a particular malfunctioning of the body due to other factors. For instance, mental diseases are diseases that cause the typical symptoms of discomfort and abnormal functioning. However, the reason behind such a condition is rarely related to pathogens. Once the reason behind such discomfort has been identified, it is usually referred to as a disease.

In medical terms, a disease is described as an abnormal condition in any organism that obstructs its bodily function. It may, in rare cases, even cause the death of the person concerned. If we use it in a broader sense, it may even refer to disabilities and injuries, infections and deviant behavior. It is important to note that even the brain is a human organ, and is therefore prone to illnesses and disease. The main effect of a disease is felt when a particular organ of the body or the body as a whole fails to maintain its condition of balance and stability. This condition is referred to in medical terms as homeostasis.

It is important to note that both illness and disease result in more or less the same symptoms. However, an illness can be cured in most cases. For instance, cold, flu or gastrointestinal diseases can be cured by treatment. However, there are a number of diseases that cannot be cured. In medical terms, both are undesirable, as they interfere with the state of homeostasis.


1. An illness is a vague condition that causes discomfort or pain. A disease refers to a condition that has established reasons behind it.
2. An illness is mostly curable. There are some diseases that cannot be cured, only managed.

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  7. Interesting article, but a bit simplistic. The words “disease” and “illness” can legitimately be used interchangeably, for instance, in the case of mental illnesses, since all mental illnesses are brain diseases. The presence of pathogens is not necessary for disease to occur, and knowing the cause of disease is not necessary to identify it as a disease. In the case of disease, dysfunction is observed (phenomenology), then one looks for the underlying mechanism for that dysfunction (pathophysiology), and from there one attempts to identify the cause (etiology). But, many diseases have unknown causes, and many have only partly understood mechanisms. So, while some use the words “disease” and “illness” in very specific ways, not all do. Be mindful of this, because not all biomedical researchers carry the same assumption as the author of this article.

    • Alesis states “all mental illnesses are brain diseases”. Can I just point out, in case anyone reads this and thinks that Alesis has some evidence for this, MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT A DISEASE. There is no clear evidence for biological causes for mental illness, most modern research (that isn’t funded by drug companies) is indicating psycho-social causes, such as trauma.

      While we’re at it: addiction isn’t a disease either.

      Good article by the way!

      • I wish people would stop making a simple explanation difficult.
        All a person has to do in this instance is call it a disease when there is an outside pathogen entering the body and an illness when there is NO outside pathogen.
        Mental ”illness” would thus not be a disease and the common cold would be.
        Why do they feel it demeaning to call alcoholism an illness and not a disease? That’s the only reason I can find for so calling it.
        We are so concerned with not hurting someone’s feelings we go out of our way to confuse the issue.
        What possible difference would it make if we used concrete pathogens for disease and everything else (such as mental problems) illnesses?
        It certainly wouldn’t make calling cancer an illness and not a disease a problem because in this case, the pathogen would be the malformed cells which are invading the body therefor a disease.
        It couldn’t be any more misleading than it now is.


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  9. Thomas Szasz brilliantly contrasted “illness” and “disease” in his penetrating explanation of why so-called mental illnesses are not literal diseases.

    He also lays bare what a psychiatrist judges when diagnosing a patient as mentally ill as opposed to mentally diseased.

    Szasz’s books are as thoroughly enjoyable as they are damningly clarifying.


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