Disease (n); “a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body resulting from the effect of genetic or developmental errors, infection, poisons, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity, or unfavorable environmental factors; illness; sickness; ailment.”
When we talk about disease, we are talking about any condition that affects the health of the body. A person may have disease and not be ill; some disease is well managed and has little impact on the day to day wellbeing of a person. Disease is a very broad term and it covers many thousands of different conditions, from the common to the extremely rare and from the mildly irritating to the deadly serious.
There are certain terms used to describe diseases. One of the broadest of these divisions is whether a disease is acute or chronic. An acute disease is a disease which doesn’t last long. For example, common respiratory infections such as the common cold or influenza is usually an acute condition. Chronic disease, on the other hand, is one that persists for a longer period of time. When symptoms are not present, we call this a period of remission. If a period of remission ends and symptoms return, this is called a flare-up of the disease. When a person has a chronic disease, they may find that symptoms are present consistently (we call this stable), or that they are getting worse (we call this progressive or degenerative).
While some disease is self-limiting and will improve in time, other diseases require medical treatment. Most diseases can be treated to relieve symptoms and very many can be cured completely. There are, of course, diseases which are known as progressive, which means they become worse until death occurs. However, the rate at which this happens depends on a large number of factors. Progressive disease may progress slowly or rapidly. Treatment of symptoms, easing of discomfort and holistic support are key for those suffering from rapid progressive disease.
Disease may affect one part of the body, or the entire body. A localized disease is one which stays in one part of the body and only affects that part. A systemic disease is one that occurs in the entire body or has an effect on different body systems or body parts. Disease may begin as a localized problem and the become disseminated, meaning it has spread to other parts of the body.
Disease is a very broad topic, so let’s take a look at some of the main types of disease that occur in the human body.
Diseases of the Organs
The organs of the body have specific functions that they perform in conjunction with the other systems in the body, so diseases of the organs are often inextricably linked with other organs, the nervous system, the circulatory system. For example, heart disease, while primarily a condition affecting the heart, may impact the circulation, the respiratory system, and various other bodily functions. This is because each organ by itself is part of what is known as an organ system; a network of connected organs, tissues, glands, and other elements that work together. This is why it makes sense to divide diseases into the organ systems they typically affect.
The skin is the largest organ in the human body and is responsible for providing a barrier to the outside world. It also helps regulate body temperature, protect from infection and the effects of moisture and environmental pollution. The health of the skin can be compromised, and disease can occur for a number of reasons. This may be due to internal causes such as the body not receiving the correct nutritional input, or it may be caused by something external such as coming into contact with an infectious bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. Skin disease can be localized, for example, a fungal nail infection can damage the skin around a nail, or it can spread or affect the skin all over the body, for example, eczema may be localized, or it may spread and become widespread. A doctor who specialized in conditions and diseases of the skin is called a dermatologist.
Diseases of the Nervous System
The nervous system consists of the central nervous system, made up of the brain and the spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system. This peripheral nervous system is a complex network of nerves that connects the rest of the body, including the organs and extremities. At its most basic, the nervous system is essentially a network used by chemical messengers that is constantly exchanging millions of pieces of information backwards and forward from the central nervous system to the other parts of the body. This information tells the organs, endocrine system, cardiovascular system, muscles etc. what to do. It monitors changes and sends instructions to the relevant bodily systems to react to these changes, with the aim of keeping the body in homeostasis as much as possible. Homeostasis is a state of equilibrium, where the body is balanced and functioning as well as it possibly can.
Diseases of the nervous system may be a result of a number of different causes. Injury or trauma, for example, brain damage caused by accident, can result in structural damage to the nervous system. Other causes of structural abnormality may be genetic (inherited) conditions. Infection can also cause nervous system disease, for example in meningitis or encephalitis when the brain is affected by an infection. Autoimmune conditions (when the body’s immune system reacts against the body itself) can cause damage to the nervous system. Conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis are often caused by age-related deterioration. Other causes of nervous system disease can include problems with the flow of blood, such as in the case of stroke, or the growth of tumors, which may be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
The cardiovascular system is also known as the circulatory or vascular system. It consists of the heart, blood and the blood vessels that carry the blood around the body. The heart pumps blood around the body, and the blood takes oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, where it is essential. The blood also carries hormones, which act as chemical messengers, and nutrients. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart, and veins carry it back to the heart. These blood vessels also remove carbon dioxide from the body. The health of the cardiovascular system is incredibly important.
There are many diseases that can affect the cardiovascular system. Diseases of the cardiovascular system caused by several different causes. One of the major causes of cardiovascular disease is the ageing process. As humans age, the heart functions less effectively. This can be compounded (made worse) by lifestyle factors such as obesity, smoking etc. Cardiovascular diseases – diseases of the heart, blood, and blood vessels, are known under the broad term CVD. There are many diseases that fall into this category, including structural problems with the heart such as in congenital heart disease and disease caused by blockages in the heart or blood vessels such as those causing heart attack. Problems occurring in the blood vessels can be caused by dietary and lifestyle issues such as blockages caused by atherosclerosis or high blood pressure which can be caused by poor diet and obesity.
Diseases of the Endocrine System
The endocrine system consists of a complex system of glands throughout the human body that produce chemicals called hormones. Hormones are essentials chemical messengers that travel through the body by way of the circulatory (blood) system and trigger reactions in specific organs and glands. The functions of the endocrine system include, but are not limited to, regulating how we grow and develop, how we extract energy from food (metabolism), sexual function and how we reproduce, how we repair injuries, our sleep and even how we feel (mood). Some of the organs in the human body also play a part in the endocrine system, for example, the liver, kidneys, and heart.
Diseases of the endocrine system are very wide-ranging, simply because the endocrine system does so many different jobs. Hormone levels are the strongest indicator of endocrine system disease. When there is a problem with a gland, it may produce too little or too much of a particular hormone, and this can then have a knock-on effect on other glands, organs, and the resulting bodily function. An individual endocrine gland may suffer from disease, for example, the thyroid which can underwork (hypothyroidism) or overwork (hyperthyroidism). Sometimes hormone levels are within normal ranges, but the body is not responding to them in the way it should, for example in diabetes, which is probably the most common endocrine system disease. In diabetes, the body becomes resistant to the hormone insulin. Insulin works to balance the blood glucose level, and so when the body becomes resistant, the blood glucose level suffers from imbalance. Other causes of disease within the endocrine system include tumors within the glands. A tumor in a gland can cause too much or too little of a hormone to be produced. These can be removed, where possible, to restore function to the gland. Hormone levels are sensitive to stress, and imbalances of hormones can be caused by prolonged stress and strain, or even by trauma. The endocrine system is essential to the health and wellbeing, especially as so many of the body’s other systems rely on effective levels of hormones to enable them to function properly too.
Diseases of the Digestive System
The digestive system is made up of the organs required for digestion which include the stomach, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder as well as those you might not consider digestive organs such as the tongue and salivary glands etc. The gastrointestinal tract is the series of organs that the food we eat passes through during the process of breaking it down and extracting energy and nutrients from it. The GI tract includes the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, intestines, and anus. The digestive system must function well for us to survive; we rely on it to provide the rest of the body with the energy and nutrition it needs to function.
Due to the fact that the digestive system is complex, incorporating many different organs and stretching almost the full length of the body, the diseases that can affect this system are very wide-ranging. Diseases of the digestive system can result from a large number of causes, from lifestyle and diet choices, but hereditary conditions, damage caused by trauma, structural abnormality etc. Problems may occur high up in the digestive system, in the mouth and oesophagus, or within the stomach or in the intestines (gut). However, it is also common for disease that affects one part of the digestive system to have a knock-on effect on the other parts of the gastrointestinal tract. For example, excess acid in the stomach can cause discomfort in the gut and diarrhea, as well as reflux in the oesophagus and discomfort in the throat and mouth. Digestive disease that occurs in the gut often has a far-reaching effect on the body. For example, when the body is intolerant to a particular food, or the gut is not functioning efficiently enough to effectively absorb nutrients from the food that is being digested, the whole body can suffer due to nutrient deficiencies. Many of the side effects of digestive disease can have a serious effect on the wellbeing of the person; common digestive symptoms such as pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation can make a person feel very unwell.
A disease that affects the bone can have a dramatic effect on the wellbeing of a person. The human skeleton is an incredible system of bones – 270 in a child and 206 in an adult. These bones provide a strong frame that both hold the body upright and allow it to move while at the same time protecting the organs within the body. The bones are also vital for storing minerals and in the production of blood cells. Many people are unaware that the bones also produce a hormone required for regulating blood sugar and fat storage.
While many of the most common problems with the bones that people encounter are caused by injury or trauma, there are a wide number of diseases that can affect the bones themselves. Disease of the bones may be hereditary, meaning they are passed on due to a genetic predisposition to the disease. Some bone diseases are referred to as metabolic bone diseases, meaning that the problem is caused by a deficiency in one or more minerals. The bones store minerals that the body used elsewhere. So, for example, if the body requires calcium for use within the nervous system, the parathyroid gland gives instructions for calcium to be released from where it is stored in the bones. If the body is not receiving enough calcium from the diet, the bones can become weakened through the loss of calcium. This is how osteoporosis, a bone disease that typically affects older people – especially women – occurs. Other bone diseases can be a result of wear and tear and inflammation, for example, osteoarthritis. Bone diseases like these are more common as people age. When disease affects the ability of the bones to produce blood cells, the bones themselves might not be severely affected initially, but the circulatory system and other bodily functions, such as the immune system, will be. Leukaemia is one such disease that originates within the bones; it is a cancer of the white blood cells, which are produced within the bone marrow (the spongy material inside the bones).
Diseases from Parasites/Animals
Throughout human history, people have been susceptible to injury and disease from parasites and animals. We exist in an environment that contains many other creatures and environmental risks. Like all animals, humans are vulnerable to disease from these external factors. The nature of these problems range in cause.
Some disease is caused by direct attacks, such as being bitten or stung by an insect or animals. This may cause injury, infection or introduce a toxin, bacterium, or virus into the human body. The severity of this problem can range from the mild itch of an insect bite, self-limiting and easy to heal to severe repercussions. For example, the bite of a tick can lead to Lyme disease, a serious condition that causes many distressing symptoms. Diseases from mosquitos have killed perhaps more people than anything else in human history. The spread of malaria, gangue fever, Zika and West Nile virus has been largely caused by mosquitos.
Some diseases are caused by parasites that live on or within the human body such as lice and fleas which can affect the skin and cause infection, or worms, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies, unpleasant symptoms and secondary complications such as infection.
Diseases of the Urinary System
The urinary system is also known as the renal system and is made up of the urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys. The main function of the urinary system is to get rid of waste products from the body. It is also responsible for controlling the levels of electrolytes and metabolites within the body and plays a role in ensuring the body has the right amount of blood and that the blood pressure is healthy. The urinary system produces urine in the kidneys, removing waste products from the blood as well as any excess fluid. The urine is stored in the bladder and then expelled through the urethra when the person urinates (pees).
Diseases of the urinary system can be caused by structural problems, genetic conditions or issues caused by blockages, infections, or trauma. The most common urinary illness is the urinary tract infection, which can affect men or women. This tends to occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract. Infection can occur in the urethra or higher up in the kidneys or bladder. Problems with the bladder can include overactivity when the person needs to urinate frequently, overflow when the bladder does not empty fully and issues leading to incontinence. For women, urinary issues can result from trauma during pregnancy and childbirth, while for men, urinary issues can be caused by an enlarged prostate. The urinary system is closely linked to the reproductive system as the two operate closely together within the lower abdomen and pelvis. Ageing is a major cause of disease within the urinary system, and this is sometimes linked to other diseases such as diabetes.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Diseases can be transmitted in many ways, but those which can be transferred from one person to another via sexual contact as known as STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) or sometimes as VD (venereal disease). Some of these diseases can be mild and self-limiting, while others are much more serious, sometimes fatally so. Sexually transmitted diseases can be spread during sexual contact including anal and oral sex. The nature of a sexually transmitted disease can vary. Public lice are a parasite that infests the pubic hair causing discomfort, while chlamydia is a disease that can show no symptoms for many years and lead to infertility. While some STDs such as gonorrhoea may be easily treated with antibiotics, others can cause long-term health problems. HPV, the human papillomavirus, can cause a wart-like infection that may later lead to an increased risk of cancer. The sexually transmitted disease genital herpes is a condition that is closely linked to other similar infections that can occur elsewhere in the body (it is a related virus that causes cold sores). This is a viral rather than bacterial disease that causes blisters. Once this has been caught, it remains within the body and can flare up later. Perhaps the most well-known – and feared – of all sexually transmitted diseases is HIV. This condition damages the immune system, making the body more susceptible to other diseases. If untreated, it can progress to AIDS.
To prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, regular sexual health screening and the use of condoms to protect each partner from the risk of infectious bodily fluids. Hormonal birth control such as the contraceptive pill does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases. This is especially important given the fact that many STDs do not produce recognizable symptoms and yet they may still be infectious, so they can be passed on without either partner being aware that this has ever happened.
The human body consists of many different systems, and our health relies on these different systems operating together in harmony. It is rare that a disease affecting one part of the body does not have some effect on the rest of the body to some degree. The body aims always for a state of equilibrium, where everything is balanced, and the body can function as effectively as possible. When one element is out of balance, this has a knock-on effect on the rest of the body. The key to understanding the human body is understanding that everything is inextricably connected, including the mind. How we feel emotionally and how we feel physically are inextricably linked. The control we have over our health comes from understanding this connection and making good choices that protect us from health risks. This might mean lifestyle choices such as eating well, exercising, good hygiene and responsible sexual behavior, as well as self-care and awareness of our mental health.
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