Sepsis: A Disease or a Condition?


February 20th, 2019

sepsisIs sepsis a disease or a condition? We do know that sepsis an inflammatory response to an infection. We know that it can be life-changing and fatal. But does it matter if we call it a disease or a condition? Some people strongly argue for one over the other, but is there a difference?

There are several terms to describe problems that can affect the human body: syndrome, disease, disorder, and condition. Each has a different meaning, but ultimately, they lead to the same conclusion. There is something wrong.

According to Dorland’s Medical Dictionary Online, the words are defined as:

  • Syndrome: A group of signs and symptoms that collectively characterize or indicate a particular disease or abnormal condition.
  • Disease: Any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function of a part, organ, or system of the body as manifested by characteristic symptoms and signs; the etiology [cause], pathology [science of cause and effect of disease], and prognosis [outcome] may be known or unknown.
  • Disorder: A derangement [disturbance] or abnormality of function; a morbid [abnormal] physical or mental state.

Interestingly, the word condition isn’t defined as a medical problem in Dorland’s but in the Oxford dictionary, it’s defined as, “an illness or other medical problem.” So, which is sepsis – a disease or condition?

“Many named diseases are not associated with specific pathobiology, for example, diabetes mellitus,” said Sepsis Alliance Chief Medical Officer, Steven Q. Simpson, MD. “There are a multitude of derangements [or disturbances] that go into the making of high blood glucose and its complications, and no two patients are exactly alike. Does that make diabetes a disease or a condition? The American Diabetes Association will assure you that it is a disease. I, personally, make no distinction between the terms condition or disease when referring to sepsis, and I use them interchangeably.”

When writers and journalists cover health issues, they have to decide which term to use. The AMA Style Guide is a popular source of information for clarifying these issues. The guide states that “condition” is the least specific of the terms and suggests that it be used to indicate the grade or state of health, such as stable, serious, or critical. It also states, “a condition conferring illness can be further classified as a disease or a disorder.” When looking at the word “disease,” the guide says, “Disease is often used in a general sense when referring to conditions affecting a physical system (eg, cardiovascular disease) or a part of the body (eg, diseases of the foot). The term also may be used in specific senses—for example, a writer might refer in general terms to neurologic disease or in specific terms to Alzheimer’s disease. But disease is perhaps most often used when referring to a condition that possesses specific characteristics.”

It seems that the important thing is not whether sepsis is called a disease or a condition, because both are correct, but that the word sepsis is used. By consistently calling sepsis by name, the public becomes more aware of it and what the word means.