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What could be the difference between contracting a disease and catching a disease?

I know there isn't any big difference. However, it looks like there are some diseases you can both catch and contract and others you can only either catch or contract.

  • As far as I know, you catch a disease from another human. In other words it is contagious. You contract a disease if comes from somewhere else such as contaminated food or an insect bite. In other words, you can catch the flu from your sibling but contract dengue from a mosquito. – Roaring Fish Feb 22 '16 at 4:28
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+50

While the terms are often used interchangeably with regard to illness, there are some differences.

Contract, in this context, means

[with object] catch or develop (a disease or infectious agent): three people contracted a killer virus

The term is regularly used with chronic diseases:

Women in their 30s and 40s are TWICE as likely to contract cancer than men - with breast cancer largely to blame

Daily Mail

Arthritis: What are the symptoms and who is likely to contract it?

compleatmother.com

Catch means

contract (an illness) through infection or contagion: he served in Macedonia, where he caught malaria

The principal difference is that catch suggests a transmittable infection, while contract can refer to a wider variety of diseases, including those that are not contagious.

  • 2
    As a native speaker, I can attest to how you can't contract a non-contagious disease. Catch and contract mean the same thing. – bjb568 Feb 21 '16 at 17:53
  • 2
    I'm a native speaker, and I'd second CopperKettle's confusion. Bib, can you add a concrete example of a non-contagious disease that we say is contracted? I wouldn't use the word for things like cancer or arthritis. Here are some relevant Word Reference forum threads that seem to support this: develop a disease - contract a disease, suffer (from) a disease; contract a disease; develop a disease – sumelic Feb 21 '16 at 18:04
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    A quote from the second link: "An individual contracts a disease... typically by being exposed to something contagious; diseases with an infectious etiology are contracted (hepatitis, STDs, yellow fever etc.) In other words, you don’t contract a heart attack or a broken leg." – sumelic Feb 21 '16 at 18:05
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    @sumelic Added examples of contract for non-infectious diseases. I am not suggesting that this is a medical distinction, only a common usage. – bib Feb 21 '16 at 18:29
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    Eh, the examples seem to me as just using imprecise terminology, it feels wrong to "contract cancer". – bjb568 Feb 21 '16 at 21:03
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contract 3 /kənˈtrakt/ [with object] catch or develop (a disease or infectious agent): three people contracted a killer virus

Use contract in formal or technical English.

Use catch in informal or plain English.

6

This isn't so much a separate answer as a clarification to the correct answer provided by bib and to answer the comments about contracting a non-contagious disease. I don't have the reputation yet to comment, so I'm putting it in an answer.

Many chronic conditions which should not strictly speaking be called a disease are, in fact, called diseases. For example, heart disease is not something contracted from another carrier like a virus or bacteria, but is instead caused by the combination of factors of genetic predisposition, lifestyle, age, and chance. Yet, one can contract heart disease. One cannot, however, catch heart disease.

If you look in the earlier definition of contract you will see that it has two possible definitions: to catch or to develop.

Also, I think this problem is arising from a shift in the meaning of the word disease. Two decades ago you might have seen heart condition rather than heart disease, but for many of us there is still an implied requirement that a disease be caused by something external, while a condition is caused by something genetic or by lifestyle choice. Forgive me if this observation is too much of a tangent.

  • 1
    I am confused by your last paragraph, which seems to say that 20 years ago the term was, correctly, heart condition (genetic, lifestyle cause), but that now it has shifted, incorrectly, to heart disease (external cause). Can you clarify? +1 despite my confusion. – ab2 Feb 22 '16 at 5:11
  • Absolutely! What we are witnessing is a shift in the meaning of the word. Those of us who grew up with the old meaning still apply it. Since the meaning of the word has shifted, that means some people's understanding is no longer in sync with current usage. I still internally apply a standard to the word usage that is becoming outdated. It is a part of the natural process for word meaning or usage to shift, and it's kind of exciting to notice it in process. – Joan Schneider Feb 22 '16 at 16:34
5

I would like to add a distinction that is perhaps not wholly semantic, but rather pragmatic - that contract has a stronger connotation than does catch, it sounds more like something serious.

I think that this probably stems from the register of the two - contract is more formal, so we tend to use it when talking about serious diseases. But an academic paper about a cold virus would still use the term contract - so it is not that you can't use the term when talking about minor illnesses. On the other hand, it sounds a bit strange to talk about catching HIV...

Personally, although some answers above prove that not everyone feels this way, I would only ever use either of the terms to refer to something contagious. Heart disease is something that develops, it is not contracted. A brief perusal of Google Scholar shows that this seems to be case - I cannot find a single paper about contracting heart disease, diabetes or cancer, but there are many about developing all of them. There are, however, many papers about contracting contagious diseases.

3

First, here are the definitions:

Contract verb 3 [with object] Catch or develop (a disease or infectious agent): three people contracted a killer virus - ODO

Catch verb 7 Contract (an illness) through infection or contagion: he served in Macedonia, where he caught malaria - ODO

As definitions, they are very close synonyms. In popular usage, though, I'd venture to suggest that contract relates more to the (scientific / medical) cause of the disease whereas catch relates more to (non-medical) blame for its onset.

Let's put it in the following form:

He caught / contracted the disease from X.

With caught, X is commonly something like his classmates (someone who had symptoms of the disease) or from being out in the rain (a general condition that refers to correlation of the condition with the symptoms, and not to the biological vector or arguably even the immune function). These instances of X don't sound as natural with contract.

With contracted, X is commonly something like (eating) infected shellfish (a biological vector).

2

There is no difference between the two versions with to contract and to catch. The first one is Latin (con-trahere, basic meaning to draw) and academic, the second one is colloqial and simple plain English.

2

The crux of the difference does seem to lie in register, with "catch" being a simple, monosyllabic verb as opposed to the more latinate "contract".

I came across a worthwhile overview of the historical development of English and this schism between the academic register and the common register, for those who are interested.

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:09

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