Disease, Disorder, Syndrome, Symptom or Condition?
Last updated: January 2022
Editor's Note: This article was not written by a medical professional. Always speak with your doctor if you have any questions on medical terminology.
I have something embarrassing to admit. As a writer who focuses on topics related to health and well-being, you would think I would know the differences between the terms disease, disorder, symptom, syndrome, and condition.
Well, I must admit until recently I had been using the terms loosely and mixing them up. Especially when unfamiliar with the proper terminology to use when describing health conditions.
Embarrassing as it is, I always want to know the most accurate way to describe or identify most things. This is most true when it comes to medical terminology. Using correct terminology in plain language makes health information accessible and accurate.
I hope that after reading this article you too feel more confident in knowing the various terms that make up the medical diagnoses hierarchy. When undergoing the process of getting diagnosed with a medical condition you may hear your doctor talk about your symptoms and diagnosis using different terms such as disease, disorder, syndrome, or condition.
Medical terms are not all synonymous
Although these terms may seem interchangeable they are not. Apart from the term condition which is a blanket term for any unwanted medical occurrence(s), the term condition actually refers to specific health conditions.1
To begin let’s start with some basic definitions:
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines disease as 'a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms'.2
The same dictionary defines disorder as 'an abnormal physical or mental condition'.
Symptom is defined as ‘evidence of disease or physical disturbance’.
Condition is defined as a ‘defective state of health,’ and also ‘a limiting or modifying factor.’ Both are applicable to medical terminology.
Symptoms, syndromes, disorders, and diseases are terms used in a hierarchy to classify how our health is affected.3 A syndrome refers to a group of abnormal and, or related symptoms with no known cause.4. Syndrome is defined as ‘a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and that characterize a specific abnormality or condition'.
A disease refers to an established condition having a known cause.5 Groups of symptoms associated with each other that have a known biological cause can lead to a diagnosis of a disease.
Correct terms can help your doctor help you
Knowing the specific symptoms of a syndrome can help doctors diagnose what is responsible for the disease. Disease and syndrome are important terms to distinguish between in medicine. When a person exhibits signs and symptoms that indicate they are not feeling well they move to the first step in the hierarchy: symptom.
Next, it is determined which diagnoses type the symptom(s) fall under. To be diagnosed with a disease an individual health problem will have a known cause that tends to affect a particular part or system of the body and produces noticeable symptoms.6
When symptoms are associated with pathogenesis it can lead to the symptom(s) being moved in the hierarchy and designated either a syndrome, disease, or disorder.
Condition is used as a blanket term used to indicate a person's level and state of health regardless of whether the state is them being well or unwell. An example of this is the terms ‘critical or stable condition’ that is used to indicate the severity of a person's injuries or illness.
It is not a type of formal diagnosis such as in the case of a disease, disorder, or syndrome.7
I hope this makes these specific terms a little more clear. Knowing the difference can help you and your healthcare team get you the exact help that you need when you need it.