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What is an Iceberg Disease?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An iceberg disease is a disease which only causes severe and easily identifiable symptoms in some patients. The classic example of an iceberg disease is Celiac disease, a condition associated with an inability to digest gluten. In some cases, symptoms make a Celiac diagnosis relatively straightforward, but in other instances, a patient may experience abstract, intermittent symptoms which make a diagnosis challenging.

This term references the popular idea that only a small part of an iceberg projects from the surface of the water; the same concept is referenced in the saying “the tip of the iceberg.” The idea is that only a fraction of patients with this kind of disease actually seek medical treatment and receive a firm diagnosis, while the vast majority may never receive treatment, often because they don't recognize the fact that their symptoms have a distinct pattern.

For a patient who suffers from an iceberg disease, the disease can be extremely frustrating. As symptoms come and go, the patient may have trouble finding a doctor who takes the situation seriously, and several wrong diagnoses may be arrived at before the doctor and patient finally get to the bottom of the problem. Some patients are accused of being hypochondriacs who are simply faking to get attention, and their concerns may be dismissed.

Iceberg diseases can remain hidden and stealthy for years, sometimes only manifesting in a period of extreme stress, or having such vague symptoms that the patient doesn't notice until the problem becomes severe. This can be problematic in the case of a disease which causes slow degeneration, as patients may not grasp the fact they have a problem until a substantial amount of damage has been done.

While iceberg diseases are certainly a threat, it's no reason to lunge to the doctor's office, unless someone has experienced a consistent set of symptoms or general malaise for an extended period of time. Being able to describe and define the symptoms is very helpful when discussing an ephemeral medical problem with a doctor, and it's also a good idea to be able to link a symptom to a specific incident. For example, someone who experiences vague indigestion and intestinal problems after eating dairy products might have a mild form of lactose intolerance.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Contentum — On Mar 04, 2014

@Realited I guess you might be right but it would be nice to know for sure if it is or isn’t classified as such. It would make for better communication between medical professionals and to the laymen who might not know the term iceberg disease.

By Realited — On Mar 03, 2014

I don’t think cancer is classified as an iceberg disease. And most people who smoke know they are going to get lung cancer. I would guess the people who are exposed to second hand smoke might not know it, so in a sense then yes it might be considered an iceberg disease. But the majority of people who may have a disease that isn’t apparent right away don’t know they have it or if they will suffer effects of it in time.

By Contentum — On Mar 02, 2014

Can this be said of something like cancer? It isn't apparent right away and takes a long time to manifest itself, depending of course on the type of cancer that it is. Someone with lung cancer might not know it until years after it starts to make itself known. On the other side of the coin, someone with cancer of the liver, kidneys, or pancreas might know something is amiss when they either try going to the bathroom or after eating or drinking a certain substance.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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