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The Difference Between Disease and Illness

Updated on October 2, 2011

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


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    • Lilith Eden profile image

      Lilith Eden 6 years ago from Memphis, TN


      Mumps...definite disease.

      Plague...yea, probably so.

      Stress and achy knees...sorry, probably illness.

      You got the message. No need to be an anthr...antra.... whatever I am. ;-)


    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 6 years ago from Florida

      Excellent point. If people realized the difference between diseases, illnesses, and afflicton, many more people would be able to treat what ever it is they have with the best curative methods.

      To me, a disease is simply an infestation of a bacteria or virus. Illness and affliction are generalized terms that could that could be applied to a sore back or chronic arthritis. Neither of which are diseases.If you have one of these "afflictions", you may consider yourself "ill", but not diseased. Mumps? yeah, you got a disease.

      Where culture figures in this english lesson escapes me. The again, I'm no of you guys.

    • Lilith Eden profile image

      Lilith Eden 6 years ago from Memphis, TN


      Thank you for giving it your consideration. I believe it to definitely be something worth knowing about.


    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 6 years ago from Escondido, CA

      Good food for thought. I'm gon'na reflect on this again soon. Thanks!