What is an Iceberg Disease?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Dermatitis herpetiformis is a telltale sign of celiac disease.
Dermatitis herpetiformis is a telltale sign of celiac disease.

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.

Iceberg diseases cause severe, easily identifiable symptoms only in some patients.
Iceberg diseases cause severe, easily identifiable symptoms only in some patients.

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.

Individuals who are lactose intolerant may experience painful stomach cramps after consuming dairy products.
Individuals who are lactose intolerant may experience painful stomach cramps after consuming dairy products.

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.

Celiac disease is the classic example of an iceberg disease.
Celiac disease is the classic example of an iceberg disease.

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.

A patient suffering from an iceberg disease may have difficulty finding a doctor who takes his or her situation seriously.
A patient suffering from an iceberg disease may have difficulty finding a doctor who takes his or her situation seriously.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments

Contentum

@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.

Realited

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.

Contentum

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.

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register:
    • Dermatitis herpetiformis is a telltale sign of celiac disease.
      By: roblan
      Dermatitis herpetiformis is a telltale sign of celiac disease.
    • Iceberg diseases cause severe, easily identifiable symptoms only in some patients.
      By: Piotr Marcinski
      Iceberg diseases cause severe, easily identifiable symptoms only in some patients.
    • Individuals who are lactose intolerant may experience painful stomach cramps after consuming dairy products.
      By: inesbazdar
      Individuals who are lactose intolerant may experience painful stomach cramps after consuming dairy products.
    • Celiac disease is the classic example of an iceberg disease.
      By: joshya
      Celiac disease is the classic example of an iceberg disease.
    • A patient suffering from an iceberg disease may have difficulty finding a doctor who takes his or her situation seriously.
      By: sepy
      A patient suffering from an iceberg disease may have difficulty finding a doctor who takes his or her situation seriously.
    • Iceberg diseases aren't too serious unless someone has experienced general malaise for an extended period of time.
      By: miya227
      Iceberg diseases aren't too serious unless someone has experienced general malaise for an extended period of time.
    • Iceberg disease can sometimes remain hidden, outside of manifesting as a period of extreme stress.
      By: Mitarart
      Iceberg disease can sometimes remain hidden, outside of manifesting as a period of extreme stress.