The Classifications of Disease

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Blood smears showing two diseases of the blood. (a) Malaria is an infectious, zoonotic disease caused by the protozoan pathogen Plasmodium falciparum (shown here) and several other species of the genus Plasmodium. It is transmitted by mosquitoes to humans. (b) Sickle cell disease is a noninfectious genetic disorder that results in abnormally shaped red blood cells, which can stick together and obstruct the flow of blood through the circulatory system. It is not caused by a pathogen, but rather a genetic mutation. (credit a: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit b: modification of work by Ed Uthman)

OpenStax Microbiology

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is used in clinical fields to classify diseases and monitor morbidity (the number of cases of a disease) and mortality (the number of deaths due to a disease). In this section, we will introduce terminology used by the ICD (and in health-care professions in general) to describe and categorize various types of disease.

An infectious disease is any disease caused by the direct effect of a pathogen. A pathogen may be cellular (bacteria, parasites, and fungi) or acellular (viruses, viroids, and prions). Some infectious diseases are also communicable, meaning they are capable of being spread from person to person through either direct or indirect mechanisms. Some infectious communicable diseases are also considered contagious diseases, meaning they are easily spread from person to person. Not all contagious diseases are equally so; the degree to which a disease is contagious usually depends on how the pathogen is transmitted. For example, measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can be transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes and an uninfected person breathes in droplets containing the virus. Gonorrhea is not as contagious as measles because transmission of the pathogen (Neisseria gonorrhoeae) requires close intimate contact (usually sexual) between an infected person and an uninfected person.

Diseases that are contracted as the result of a medical procedure are known as iatrogenic diseases. Iatrogenic diseases can occur after procedures involving wound treatments, catheterization, or surgery if the wound or surgical site becomes contaminated. For example, an individual treated for a skin wound might acquire necrotizing fasciitis (an aggressive, “flesh-eating” disease) if bandages or other dressings became contaminated by Clostridium perfringens or one of several other bacteria that can cause this condition.

Diseases acquired in hospital settings are known as nosocomial diseases. Several factors contribute to the prevalence and severity of nosocomial diseases. First, sick patients bring numerous pathogens into hospitals, and some of these pathogens can be transmitted easily via improperly sterilized medical equipment, bed sheets, call buttons, door handles, or by clinicians, nurses, or therapists who do not wash their hands before touching a patient. Second, many hospital patients have weakened immune systems, making them more susceptible to infections. Compounding this, the prevalence of antibiotics in hospital settings can select for drug-resistant bacteria that can cause very serious infections that are difficult to treat.

Certain infectious diseases are not transmitted between humans directly but can be transmitted from animals to humans. Such a disease is called zoonotic disease (or zoonosis). According to WHO, a zoonosis is a disease that occurs when a pathogen is transferred from a vertebrate animal to a human; however, sometimes the term is defined more broadly to include diseases transmitted by all animals (including invertebrates). For example, rabies is a viral zoonotic disease spread from animals to humans through bites and contact with infected saliva. Many other zoonotic diseases rely on insects or other arthropods for transmission. Examples include yellow fever (transmitted through the bite of mosquitoes infected with yellow fever virus) and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (transmitted through the bite of ticks infected with Rickettsia rickettsii).

In contrast to communicable infectious diseases, a noncommunicable infectious disease is not spread from one person to another. One example is tetanus, caused by Clostridium tetani, a bacterium that produces endospores that can survive in the soil for many years. This disease is typically only transmitted through contact with a skin wound; it cannot be passed from an infected person to another person. Similarly, Legionnaires disease is caused by Legionella pneumophila, a bacterium that lives within amoebae in moist locations like water-cooling towers. An individual may contract Legionnaires disease via contact with the contaminated water, but once infected, the individual cannot pass the pathogen to other individuals.

In addition to the wide variety of noncommunicable infectious diseases, noninfectious diseases (those not caused by pathogens) are an important cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Noninfectious diseases can be caused by a wide variety factors, including genetics, the environment, or immune system dysfunction, to name a few. For example, sickle cell anemia is an inherited disease caused by a genetic mutation that can be passed from parent to offspring. Other types of noninfectious diseases are listed in the table below.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: