What Does It Mean if a Disease Is Indolent?

Decoding a Medical Diagnosis

A doctor and a patient in a hospital ward.
A doctor and a patient in a hospital ward. Morsa Images/Getty Images

During an exam, your doctor may use the word "indolent" to describe your diagnosis. What does that mean? Essentially, it indicates that the disease is progressing slowly and does not pose an immediate threat.

Yet, just because a medical condition is indolent, doesn't mean it should not be treated. There are times when treating it at this stage is a better approach. As a step in understanding your diagnosis, let's look at indolent diseases in further detail.

What Is Indolent?

The word indolent has two related meanings:

  1. In one sense, indolent means lazy, lethargic, or idle, being averse to activity or movement.
  2. When applied to a medical situation, indolent can mean a problem that causes no pain, or is slow-growing and not immediately problematic.

"Indolent" comes from the Latin word indolens, which means insensitive to pain. The root dolere means to grieve or cause distress.

Synonyms: Morbid processes, low-grade diseases, silent killer diseases,

Your doctor may tell you that a tumor is indolent. That means that it will grow slowly, and you have some time to make decisions about how you will treat it. Likewise, an ulcer may be considered indolent, meaning it is present, but not causing pain.

This does not mean that these conditions won't eventually cause pain or develop into advanced stages of the disease. They may ultimately lead to full-blown disease or even to death.

But often with indolent tumors, you will die with it rather than from it.

Silent Dangers of Indolent Diseases

The vague symptoms that an indolent condition may present can easily be ignored. It may even become something that you simply get used to living with and don't think to report to your doctor.

However, when a disease is indolent, it has the potential to be a silent killer disease.

If it has no symptoms for a long period, you may not seek medical care or go for regular check-ups and screening examinations. People who avoid medical care due to cost, embarrassment, or lack of time may not have diseases diagnosed while they are still in an indolent stage.

The real issue is that the disease may be treatable and curable during the indolent stage. By the time it displays symptoms or pain, it may have a low success rate for treatment and may even result in death.

Examples of Indolent Diseases and Processes

Indolent tumors, malignancies, and slow-growing cancers, such as are often seen in prostate cancer, may only be detected by screening tests rather than symptoms. If it is diagnosed as an indolent tumor, the doctor may recommend a watch-and-wait course and not provide treatment unless it shows signs of growing or spreading.

Indolent ulcers are slow-healing wounds. On the skin, they have hard elevated edges but the base isn't granulated.

Indolent corneal ulcers are seen in dogs, often after the eye gets scratched. Usually, such a scratch would heal in days, but if an indolent ulcer develops it can last for months. Unlike the usual definition of indolent, they are bothersome. These are sometimes called Boxer ulcers as they occur frequently in that dog breed.

Indolent lymphoma is also called low-grade lymphoma. Some types of lymphoma are less aggressive and do not grow or spread rapidly. Chronic lymphocytic lymphoma, follicular small cleaved cell lymphoma, and the lowest three grades of non-Hodgkin lymphoma may be classed as indolent lymphoma.

Leprosy is an indolent infectious disease. It grows very slowly and only produces effects over the course of many years.

Indolent carditis is a form of infective endocarditis. It produces few symptoms and doesn't spread to other locations of the body. It may be associated with acute rheumatic fever.

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