What Are The Differences Between Disease And Syndrome?

A sick woman suffering from cold and fever.
  • A syndrome is a collection of symptoms that can be more difficult to diagnose than a disease.
  • In Greek,
  • A disease impairs normal functioning in the body.

When many of us fall sick, we turn to a doctor for help. It is our shared reflex to want to heal our bodies, in order to maintain a good quality of life. Maybe you have abdominal pain, or a yeast infection, or maybe that sore throat keeps coming back, and just won’t let go. Most of us consult with a medical professional for a simple answer to what ails us. We want the opportunity to get a prescription for some medicine or maybe some therapeutic exercises that we can do to take away what ails us. Whether we have a disease or a condition, or maybe it is a syndrome, it might not seem to matter in the moment. In order to treat you correctly, however, these differences do matter to a doctor. How can you tell the difference between a disease and a syndrome? Here is a general look at both medical terms. It all comes down to your symptoms and treatment. 


Pathogens like bacteria and viruses are responsible for a range of diseases like tuberculosis, COVID-19, influenza, etc. Image credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock.com

No one wishes to be diagnosed with a disease. The good news is that, if you are, it could end up being a better thing to have happen to you than being diagnosed with a syndrome. 

According to the University of Utah, a disease has a defining cause. 

Merriam-Webster defines a 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.” 

To have a disease means your body is not “at ease.” Something is bothering it, and it is a specific “something.” In essence, a disease is an ailment that is more specific than a syndrome. 

Many diseases in humans have already been discovered or identified, and there is a process that has already been developed to treat them. For example, if you have a case of strep throat, a doctor can often identify it relatively easily. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is typically done by taking a throat culture by rubbing a sterile swab across the back of your throat and tonsils. This might make you gag a bit, but it does not hurt and causes no lasting damage. The doctor will then have this sample sent to a lab for testing. If strep bacteria is detected and you do have an infection, antibiotics can often be prescribed to treat it. These will kill off the unwanted bacteria. In this way, a disease can be relatively easy to identify and treat, as it presents a straight path for doctors and patients to follow. 

This is not necessarily the case when facing a syndrome. 


A young boy with Down's syndrom. Image credit: Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock.com

According to an interview with Dr. Kirtly Jones from Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Utah Health, detecting and treating a syndrome can be more difficult to do. This is because syndromes are a bit more complex and mysterious, like a cat that is disgruntled and whining for your attention, but does not really want it when you give it to them. 

Doctors identify syndromes by looking for a group of signs or symptoms. Syndromes do not have just one cause, such as a sore throat. As a patient, you might have some symptoms of the syndrome and not others-it is all a bit wishy-washy and gray. Perhaps you have muscle pain that comes and goes. Maybe you sometimes have trouble sleeping at night, and you also have a persistent light rash. What does it all add up to? Perhaps it is a new perplexing syndrome. 

Merriam-Webster states that in Greek, “syndrome” means “running together,” as in, multiple symptoms that all come together in one big problem. Unfortunately, sometimes, researchers cannot find any underlying cause for a syndrome. As previously stated, this  can be an elusive category in medicine to experience.  

What are some examples of syndromes? Tourette syndrome, Turner syndrome, Down’s syndrome, and carcinoid syndrome are all examples you may have heard of at one point in time. 

So, a disease is caused by one specific thing and is more easily identified and treated, and a syndrome is a collection of symptoms that may be difficult to diagnose. 

What is a disorder then, just to make our lives more interesting? For that one you will have to look at irregularities and interruptions of the body’s normal functions. All these terms can mean that you are sick, but exactly how is what causes their divisions and differences. 


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