What are signs and symptoms? Meanings and difference

Signs and symptoms are two terms that we commonly use in the world of medicine and health. They describe the manifestations of a condition or disease. Although the two words are closely related, their meanings and implications are different.

What are signs?

Signs are objective findings that a doctor or nurse can observe or measure during a medical examination or test.

A skin rash, for example, is a sign, as is a fever, abnormal heart sounds, a swollen ankle, or an enlarged liver.

Signs help a doctor reach a diagnosis. They are also useful for monitoring a patient’s response to treatment.

What are symptoms

Symptoms are things that the patient reports, but others cannot observe or detect. Symptoms are often more subjective experiences than signs. Pain and nausea are symptoms, as are dizziness and blurred vision.

A symptom is the patient’s perception of their condition and are often not possible to measure. Symptoms vary significantly in duration and severity, and are typically influenced by the patient’s age, state of mind, medical history, gender, and lifestyle.

Doctors use patients’ comments, which include symptoms, to help diagnose conditions and illnesses. Symptoms also help them determine how much a patient’s daily life or quality of life has been affected.

Signs and symptoms - showing their difference

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Patients usually have have both signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms are not mutually exclusive – they commonly occur together. A patient with pneumonia, for example, may have signs such as a cough and fever, and also symptoms such as fatigue and chest pain.

Who can detect or experience signs and symptoms?

Signs can be observed or detected by other people apart from the patient, but not symptoms. A swollen ankle, which all of us can see or touch, is a sign. A headache, on the other hand, is a symptom. Your doctor, nurse, family members, or friends will only know that you have a headache if you tell them. They cannot see or sense it – only you can.