What Is The Difference Between An Illness And A Disease?

The terms Illness and Disease are often used interchangeably. But they are two different terms that can not always be used in the same context. So, what is the difference between an illness and a disease?

The difference between an illness and a disease lies in the fact that illness is a feeling of being unwell, with or without the presence of a disease whereas a disease is a diagnosable condition characterized by an abnormal state of the body.

Hence, contrary to the popular misconception, there is no specific correlation between illness and disease. An illness may or may not be caused by a disease and a disease may or may not cause illness.

Simply put, illness is a term used to refer to vague and non specific conditions. Therefore, conditions like cold, flu, teething etc are referred to as illnesses. On the other hand, a disease is characterized by an abnormal state of any part, organ or system of the body. A disease can be specifically diagnosed on the basis of signs, symptoms and specific tests.


The Relevance of These Terms

You can also derive the essence of the distinction between a disease and an illness by paying attention at the usage of the two terms. For instance, we normally, “have a disease” and “we experience a feeling of illness”. Hence, in a way, disease is a specific term with a narrow approach whereas illness is a general and ambiguous term with a broader approach.

In short, disease is an objective term whereas illness is a subjective term. The term disease usually does not take into account other holistic aspects like spiritual, social, psychological and biological aspects of an individual being. Illness on the other hand, takes these holistic aspects into consideration.

Though, in case of serious diseases like cancers, both these terms should be given equal importance. In such serious diseases, the signs and symptoms of the diseases are accompanied by fear, guilt and a variety of other feelings that constitute the illness associated with them.

Nowadays, the term “condition” is often considered better as it helps to avoid the objectivity associated with “illness” and subjectivity associated with “disease”.


  1. D.M. Davidson says

    Thanks for the article-very helpful. I’m doing a course called Health Care Concepts, right now, that’s geared towards taking the physician’s focus beyond the nuts and bolts of patient care, to the subtler elements-that is, the whole patient, rather than just his ‘condition’. I was following, up until the last paragraph. Should the word ‘objectivity’ have been associated with ‘illness’ and ‘subjectivity’ with ‘disease’? You seemed to have spent all the preceding paragraphs saying that it’s the other way around. Was it a mistake, or am I missing some subtle intent of yours?

  2. Indrajeet says

    This is how it should be done: nice and simple.

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