Communicable & Noncommunicable Diseases: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Are Diseases?
  • 1:20 What Are Communicable…
  • 2:30 What Are…
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college Microbiology and has a doctoral degree in Microbiology.

A disease is a condition in the body that disrupts normal functions. Why are some diseases contagious while others aren't? This lesson discusses the difference between communicable and noncommunicable diseases.

What Are Diseases?

Let's say you're sitting at a gate in a major American airport, waiting to board a flight. At a neighboring gate, a flight arrives and several people exit the plane wearing surgical masks. You assume that you should probably avoid these people. They must have some illness and are trying not spread it to a planeload of people. Then, your plane starts loading. You strike up a conversation with someone who's describing their difficulty getting through security with insulin and syringes. They're diabetic, yet not wearing a surgical mask. You aren't worried about catching diabetes, but why? Diabetes is a life-threatening disease after all. To answer this question, we need to examine the main difference between common illnesses.

A disease is any abnormal condition that causes a disruption in the functions of a body tissue, organ, or entire organism. Diseases are recognized by a specific set of symptoms. Think about the diseases you know: a cold, the flu, measles, cancer, stroke, or diabetes, just to name a few. These diseases all disrupt the body in very characteristic ways. Now think about what causes these conditions: viruses, bacteria, fungi, smoking, genetic defects, etc. There are countless diseases, each with its own unique and characteristic cause. But why can you 'catch' some diseases but not others? This is due to the two different types of disease: communicable and noncommunicable.

What Are Communicable Diseases?

Communicable diseases are spread from person to person or from animal to person. The spread or transfer can happen through the air, through contact with contaminated surfaces, or through direct contact with blood, feces, or other bodily fluids. A cold is an example of a communicable disease (a cold is the general term given to a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract).

This is probably why those airline passengers mentioned at the start of this lesson were wearing masks. Viruses in the respiratory passageways can easily be coughed or even just breathed out. So, if the inconsiderate cold-carrier sitting next to you on the plane coughs, viruses are spewed into your vicinity. You breathe, and suddenly those viruses have found a new respiratory tract to call home (yours!). That cold has now been passed from one infected person to another uninfected person, spreading the communicable disease.

You can probably identify other communicable diseases. If a disease is caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, or protozoa it's likely, although not always, communicable. Rabies, HIV, malaria, influenza, and athlete's foot are just a few examples of communicable diseases you may be familiar with.

What Are Noncommunicable Diseases?

What about other things like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes? You can't 'catch' these, right? These are examples of noncommunicable diseases, which are medical conditions that are not infectious and cannot be passed from one person or animal to another. Your fellow passenger with diabetes was either born with it or developed it later in life. Either way, you cannot 'catch' diabetes.

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