Syndrome vs Disease: What’s the Difference?

Syndrome vs Disease: What’s the Difference?

‘Disease’ and ‘syndrome’ are important terms in medicine especially with respect to making a diagnosis. But what exactly is the difference?


General Examination: Disease vs. Syndrome
Lecturio Team


January 31, 2024

What is a disease?

Disease is the disruption of the physical, mental, and social well-being of a person due to a specific condition. Diseases have a defined pathological process and an often predictable course and outcome. The (often known) cause of diseases’ symptoms can, for example, be infections, genetic factors, environmental factors, or others.

Differentiating disease and health can be problematic in certain cases. A state of disease should be differentiated from ill-health, but such a distinction is difficult as a healthy patient can feel ill and people that are sick might not suspect anything about their actual condition. Moreover, someone who is apparently healthy can be sick of an imagined illness and, a patient could suspect that he/she has a disease but may not have it diagnosed for various reasons. As physicians, we should not deem patients healthy simply because there is no diagnosis. Even if an imaginary disease is suspected—the patient is sick. In this case, there are mental health problems that require treatment if they cause great psychological suffering.

What is a syndrome?

Syndromes are defined as a collection of signs and symptoms that often occur together but do not have a known specific cause. A syndrome can be the result of different diseases or conditions, or be idiopathic.

Examples of syndromes

One example is Sjögren’s syndrome, which is a chronic and inflammatory autoimmune disease and is a symptom complex with an unknown cause.

Dementia is also a syndrome. Here, symptom complexes occur which are associated with dementia but seem unassociated with the disease itself. It could be Alzheimer’s disease, but also the result of a brain injury due to an accident or cerebral infarctions. Therefore, if symptoms of dementia appear, such as concentrationforgetfulness, and disorientation, they are referred to as dementia until the underlying trigger is identified.

The symptoms of syndromes

A symptom is not a disease but is merely an indication of a disease. The word syndrome comes from the Greek language and translates to ‘running together.’ Various symptoms occur simultaneously in a syndrome. It is possible that these symptoms are an indicator of a certain disease.

The symptoms of syndromes are divided into: 

  • Mental symptoms
  • Physical symptoms
  • Pathological behaviors

Syndrome vs disease: main difference

While a disease is characterized by a set of symptoms tied to a known cause, a syndrome describes a set of symptoms that co-occur without the specific common cause being known. In short:

A disease is a pathophysiological response with a specific cause and characteristic set of signs and symptoms, whereas a syndrome is a collection of symptoms that often occur together but without a known specific cause.

Sometimes the terms ‘disease’ and ‘syndrome’ may indicate varying degrees of medical knowledge. While ‘disease’ can be understood as an entity that has a well-defined etiology and pathogenesis, a ‘syndrome’ may be understood as an entity with a defined etiology but unknown pathogenesis

Diagnosing and managing syndromes vs diseases

Diseases are usually diagnosed by figuring out the underlying cause of the symptoms, like a pathogen causing an infection. Syndromes are more complex to diagnose since it requires recognizing a pattern of symptoms and signs and deciding they fit the criteria of a syndrome – since there might not be a definitive test to pinpoint a cause.

Management of a disease is, again, focused on solving the specific cause of the disease (e.g., insulin for diabetes, antibiotics for bacterial infections). Management of a syndrome often focuses on improving quality of life and alleviating symptoms, since with the underlying cause being unknown, it cannot be targeted and solved. Management is ongoing, with syndromes being chronic or having a variable course with unsure prognosis, while diseases often are more predictable, allowing for more structured treatment plans.


Remember these key points about diseases and syndromes:

  • Diseases are typically more understood, while syndromes often have ongoing research and are less clear: approach may evolve more over time and as physicians, we need to stay updated on recent developments.
  • The main difference between a disease and a syndrome is if there is an identifyable cause of the set of symptoms the patient is experiencing:
    • If yes, you’re dealing with a disease that has a predictable course, a known pathophysiology, and treatment focused on the underlying cause.
    • If no, you’re dealing with a syndrome, a named pattern of signs without a known cause; and management targets quality of life and symptom alleviation.
  • A good example to remember the difference is dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: dementia is a set of neurological symptoms that can have various causes, making it a syndrome. Alzheimer’s disease is a disease with a known cause, that can present as dementia. Until Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed, the symptoms would be described as dementia.

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