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What is Illness? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Allen Lawrence, M.D.   
Illness (also referred to as ill-health, being sick or sickness) is a “a state of poor health.”

Illness can be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, acute or chronic, minor, severe, life-threatening or fatal. It is also commonly referred to as a "malady", "condition", "unhealthiness", or as "health problems".

To be ill there generally must be at least one of any three main subjective criteria: 1) the person must feel ill, 2) they must look ill, 3) there must be some impairment of normal physiology, bodily or behavioral functions, or bodily processes which can affect all or part of the individual.

As an abnormal condition of the body or mind it can cause discomfort, pain, dysfunction, disability or distress to the person afflicted or those in contact with the person. Sometimes, in fact, the term illness is used broadly to include injuries, disabilities, syndromes, infections, symptoms, deviant behaviors, or atypical variations of structure or function, while in other contexts these aspects may well be considered distinguishable categories or consequences of illness.

At its most minimal state there are no significant changes in the body hence physical examination, laboratory and diagnostic testing will show nothing. In its more significant state, often referred to as disease, there are pathologic changes hence abnormal findings. The physical examination, blood and other diagnostic testing, will likely show abnormalities once a specific disease is diagnosed.


Some dictionaries use simplified definitions such as:

a) An unhealthy condition of body or mind
b) Poor health resulting from disease of body or mind; sickness, illness
c) Evil, wickedness
d) Affected with some ailment not in good health


More Than the Sick Person Is Affected

One thing that soon becomes clear about illness is that it generally affects more than the person who is sick. It will often affect his or her family, job, co-workers, the family finances, and occasionally the entire community.

Illness can be expensive and may create hardships for the sick person and for their family. It may require legal actions such as sale or goods and properties and even bankruptcy in some cases. Illness, especially severe illness, life-threatening illness, or chronic illness is often multi-dimensional affecting many aspects of the ill persons life, their family, their friends and the community they live in, as we have described above. These illnesses are often referred to as disease, chronic disease or injury.

As an abnormal condition of the body or mind it can cause discomfort, pain, dysfunction, disability or distress to the person afflicted or those in contact with the person. Sometimes, in fact, the term illness is used broadly to include injuries, disabilities, syndromes, infections, symptoms, deviant behaviors, or atypical variations of structure or function, while in other contexts these aspects may well be considered distinguishable categories or consequences of illness.