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What Are the Different Types of Systemic Disease?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Systemic diseases come in a number of forms and types, though all are characterized by one defining feature: they impact multiple parts of the body simultaneously, and usually require a somewhat aggressive and complex treatment plan. Hypertension and diabetes are some of the most well known, in part because of how many people they impact. Autoimmune conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and related acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) are also included in this category, as are inflammatory conditions like lupus. Medical professionals usually take a “whole person” approach to treating systemic problems, and treatments tend to be both comprehensive and long lasting.

What Makes a Disease “Systemic”

In simple terms, a disease is “systemic” if is impacts more than one organ or body system at a time. Usually the ways in which these different parts are impacted varies, too, and at first they may not seem related. The right diagnosis will usually show just one illness, or one illness and a related, offshoot condition, as the main causes.

Breaking systemic diseases down into “types” can be challenging, since each acts in its own unique way and isn’t usually similar to others except to the extent that it impacts daily life or body functioning. Many will overlap into multiple categories, too. Looking at conditions in terms of how they manifest and spread is often the easiest way to get a handle on the category.

Hypertension and Diabetes

Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, may not seem like a disease at first, but it’s usually grouped in the “systemic” category because of its potential to cause problems across the body. Its relationship with more serious conditions like diabetes is also noteworthy. Diabetes is a problem that starts in the pancreas and impacts the levels of insulin that organ produces; insulin is critical to the breakdown and digestion of sugars, and people who have this disease can experience extensive damage if they don’t supplement their insulin stores artificially, usually via injection. There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 is inherited, and comes about all on its own, whereas type 2 is caused by environmental factors like poor diet.

People who suffer from either type are more likely to develop high blood pressure at some point, which often makes the condition worse. Both diabetes and hypertension can be controlled with the aid of medication, dietary, and lifestyle changes including exercise and weight loss. Compliance with a prescribed treatment regimen is essential to alleviate the risk of complications such as stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney issues.


Atherosclerosis is another form of systemic disease that is closely related to instances of hypertension and diabetes. When fatty material, or plaque, accumulates in the arteries, it hardens over time blocking blood flow to various organs and limbs. This can limit functioning and mobility. Perhaps more concerning is the risk that pieces of plaque could break off and travel via the bloodstream to the heart or brain causing heart attack or stroke. Medications and dietary changes are necessary to prevent further plaque accumulation, and, in some cases, surgery is required to remove extensive plaque buildup.

Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune disease is another type of systemic problem, though again this category can be wide ranging. Some common examples of autoimmune conditions are HIV/AIDS, Celiac disease, and Multiple Sclerosis. These sorts of conditions usually happen when the body's immune system confuses healthy elements with damaged or diseased ones, and in effect begins attacking itself as a result. Though there no cures associated with systemic autoimmune diseases, management of symptoms is possible with the appropriate treatment regimen.

Inflammatory Conditions

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, long-term disorder that causes the body's immune system to attack the joints and connective tissues. It’s often considered to be an autoimmune condition but is also commonly defined by the inflammation and pain it causes sufferers. Symptoms of the disease include a limited range of motion, swollen glands, and widespread pain in joints and muscles. A diagnosis is confirmed via a number of tests including a complete blood count (CBC), X-rays, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the affected area. Rheumatoid arthritis requires a life-long plan of treatment that includes a combination of exercise, medications, physical therapy, and, in severe cases, surgery to correct joint damage.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), similarly, is a disease that affects the joints, skin, and, potentially numerous internal organs. It’s most commonly found among African Americans, though anyone can develop it; general symptoms include muscle aches, joint swelling and pain, and sensitivity to sunlight. The severity and type of symptoms experienced vary with each case.

More Focused Problems

Some systemic conditions are more focused on specific body functions or organs. GI tract problems that fall within this category include Chron's disease, which in most cases is limited to the intestinal tract but can cause problems elsewhere if not treated. Anemias, or diseases of the blood, are characterized by persistent fatigue, a pale or gray pallor, and a depressed resistance to infection. Skin conditions such as psoriasis are associated with skin inflammation and lesions. Such chronic conditions require not only long-term medical treatment, but lifestyle changes and preventative measures to lessen the risk of the developing secondary conditions.

Treatment and Prognosis

In general, treatment for systemic disease is considered long-term and usually focuses on controlling symptoms and preventing secondary conditions and complications. There isn’t usually a “one size fits all” answer, and a lot depends on the specific patient. Most systemic conditions can’t actually be healed, which makes the goal more about restoring basic health than ridding the body of the disease completely. Many people can lead long and full lives in spite of their diagnosis, but they usually have to be both careful and intentional about managing their symptoms.

What Is Systemic Disease?

Systemic afflictions impact multiple areas of the body, not a single segment. The human anatomy contains several complex networks. When these groups work in harmony, the body remains balanced and healthy. These major bodily systems include the following:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Muscular
  • Nervous 
  • Lymphatic 
  • Skeletal 
  • Respiratory 
  • Digestive 
  • Reproductive 
  • Endocrine

If one of these entities has an issue, the problem quickly impacts the total package. Cardiovascular disorders like hypertension qualify as systemic. If one part of the cardiovascular network isn't functioning, organs, tissues and muscles will eventually suffer. For example, hypertension may limit blood delivery throughout the body. When organs can't get the blood they need, they will not function properly. Thus, hypertension causes systemic complications.

Systemic disorders are not limited to chronic illness. Inflammatory illnesses like influenza are also considered systemic. 

What Is Not Systemic Disease?

Localized conditions are issues that target one part of the body. These ailments remain in the area where they began and do not migrate. Frequently, they encompass injuries like broken bones, cuts or infections. For example, if you cut your finger and it later becomes infected, that is a localized issue.

These situations are not always minor. Breast cancer that has not spread, for example, targets only the breasts, making it a confined problem.

What Is Disseminated Disease?

A localized issue can become systemic if it moves beyond its origin. It is a systemic problem once breast cancer metastasizes and appears in nearby lymph nodes. When something starts local but later becomes systemic, medical professionals refer to it as a disseminated disease.

How Does the Immune System Protect the Body From Disease?

The human immune system is a complicated network of cells and organs. This network includes the following hard-working components:

  • Lymph nodes
  • Skin
  • Spleen
  • Bone marrow 
  • White and red blood cells 
  • Lymphocytes

Each of these team members has a unique role in keeping individuals healthy.


Lymph nodes are all over the body. Some hide under the skin, but others are visible, like the tonsils. Lymph nodes are often the first line of defense against invading bacteria and viruses. They live in groups to protect a specific bodily region. When nodes detect an invader close by, they spring into action. The lymphatic fluid inside the node filters out the unwanted pathogens to stop them from multiplying and progressing. When the lymph nodes are doing their job, they will swell. Many people have had swollen glands during a cold or flu for this reason. 

The spleen is a secondary filter. Blood flows through the spleen, and the organ discovers infections. When it detects something unfamiliar, the spleen signals immune cells to attack.


The skin has a straightforward job: to serve as a blockade. This layer of protection prevents external sources from getting inside. When cuts occur, the barrier is open, and bacteria can get inside. 


The superhero's of this response team are the white blood cells. These cells, also known as leukocytes, originate in the bone marrow. Their job is to roam around and seek out germs that shouldn't be there. When they find an unwelcome visitor, they alert other white blood cells and converge on the new organism. The leukocytes use antibody proteins to attack and destroy foreign trespassers. Bone marrow creates extra leukocytes to add more warriors to the fight during active illness.

What Is Innate vs. Adaptive Immunity?

Innate immunity is the resistance capability that is present at birth. The skin, mucous and tears are all examples of innate immunity. Genetic makeup also contributes to a person's natural response. 

Adaptive immunity develops over time. When a new bacteria or virus appears, immune cells learn to destroy it. What is remarkable is that the immune system has a memory. Once it knows how to kill an invader, it will remember how to eliminate it in the future. Adaptive immunity can occur via natural sickness or vaccination. 

What Is Severe Systemic Disease?

A mild systemic disease affects the whole body but is not life-threatening. For example, a hypertension patient can control the disorder through medication and lifestyle changes. Likewise, a patient with an autoimmune syndrome can go into remission. These conditions are systemic but mild. 

Severe systemic diseases are severe or life-threatening disorders that surgery or treatment cannot cure. One severe systemic ailment is chronic kidney disease, which is life-threatening and requires regular dialysis treatments to prevent death. Uncontrolled COPD or diabetes are also examples of severe systemic illness. Conditions can downgrade from severe to mild if treatment plans work as intended.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Mar 28, 2014

Autoimmune disease must be the most difficult type of systemic disease to treat and manage. As far as I know, there are no cures for autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. The best that can be done is treat the symptoms. Sometimes, doctors use immunosuppressant drugs to reduce the activity of the immune system, but this also makes an individual more prone to infections. So it's a double edged sword.

Treatment of systemic diseases that are not related to the immune system are easier.

By discographer — On Mar 26, 2014

@SarahGen-- Diabetes is a metabolic disorder but it is also a systemic disease because it affects many different systems in the body. For example, uncontrolled diabetes will cause complications in organs like the liver and kidneys and systems like the central nervous system.

At the very basic level, high blood sugar levels damage veins leading to poor blood circulation. Eventually this shows up as high blood pressure and loss of sensation in the legs and feet.

The same can be said about high blood pressure. High blood pressure affects the organs and systems of the body in different ways as well.

By SarahGen — On Mar 26, 2014

I have diabetes but I always thought of diabetes as a metabolic disorder rather than a systemic disease.

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