The Difference Between Disease and Illness
Within modern society, the terms “disease” and “illness” are used interchangeably, yet within anthropology, a distinction between the two must be made, especially when approaching non-western cultures.
Wherein Lies the Difference?
Disease, for example, is an actual abnormality in the structure or function of a body and its parts. These entities are certain afflictions that can be diagnosed by a professional health practitioner. Disease is simply an objective biological phenomenon that results from an identifiable source, such as a pathogen or injury.
Illness, on the other hand, is culturally dependent. A sickness identified as an illness may have biological manifestations, but will also include psychological and social dimensions. The cultural conception of “normal” health is oftentimes subconsciously considered, and symptoms refined to socially acceptable levels. Causes of illnesses often include supernatural means, such as bewitching.
For a more detailed explication of culturally dependent illnesses, refer to the hub Culture-Bound Syndromes.
While licensed physicians generally cure diseases, illness is often treated outside of the modern health care system by “popular” of “folk” remedies that are provided by family, religious practitioners, or other types of healers.
An excellent example for the distinction between disease and illness is found in hypertension. Oftentimes, persons suffering from high blood pressure will not think of themselves as actually being ill, albeit still having an identifiable disease. On the opposite end of the spectrum, hypochondriasis, or the fear of being gravely ill, is entirely psychological and cannot be diagnosed.Within a medical setting, the inattention often exhibited towards illness results in patient noncompliance and consequent failure of treatment. Conversely, if an individual suffers from a disease, but believes it to be an illness that is then “successfully” treated by a local shaman or other folk healer, the consequences may prove detrimental