Recognizing the Difference Between Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing the Difference Between Signs and Symptoms

You may come across the term “signs and symptoms” while reading a label on a medicine bottle or consulting a medical website prior to contacting a licensed medical professional.

To what exactly does “signs and symptoms” refer? They might seem synonymous, but actually refer to different things:

What are Signs?

Signs are observable indications of a medical issue. For example, someone with a bone fracture might exhibit excessive sweating, pale or flushed skin, rapid heartbeat, vomiting, and bleeding.  These signs can all be measured by a licensed medical practitioner through either visual observation, listening, or by touch.

There are three types of signs:

  •         Anamnestic
  •         Diagnostic
  •         Prognostic

The three types of signs show the life cycle of a disease, illness, or condition. Anamnestic signs presented in the past. Diagnostic signs are the signs the person is experiencing currently, and prognostic signs are what the disease, illness, or condition will look like in the future.

Perhaps the most recognizable signs, however, are vital signs. These are also the most important, as vital signs measure basic functions within the body and help determine a person’s health.

Vital signs include:

  •         Blood pressure
  •         Pulse rate
  •         Body temperature
  •         Breathing rate or respiration rate

Again, vital signs are observable and measurable by sight, sound, or touch. Vital signs can be read in a doctor’s office in the event of a medical emergency, or individually at home.

What are Symptoms?

Symptoms are the experience of each individual patient. Patients have to report their own symptoms; they cannot be diagnosed through observation. Symptoms might include pain, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, headache, or itching.

There are three categories to describe symptoms:

  •         Chronic
  •         Remitting
  •         Relapsing

Chronic symptoms last for a prolonged period of time and often do not go away. Asthma symptoms are an example of chronic symptoms. Remitting symptoms are symptoms that once occurred, but are now completely gone from the body. For example, the symptoms of a common cold virus that are no longer present are remitting symptoms. Finally, relapsing symptoms are symptoms that have gone away but then reappear. Cancer symptoms might dissipate and then later reoccur, or relapse.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs are an objective way to determine whether a person is sick, meaning another person can observe and measure them. Symptoms can only be measured by a person describing how they feel. Symptoms are a therefore a subjective method to detect an illness or medical condition.

Signs and symptoms are different by definition, but more often than not, they work hand in hand. For instance, someone having a heart attack might have a high heart rate, clutch their arm, and look sweaty (all signs), and also report feeling chest pain, dizziness, and numbness (all symptoms). These signs and symptoms together can help providers determine what’s happening. 

Using Signs and Symptoms to Decide When to See a Doctor

Signs and symptoms are frequently used synonymously when describing an illness or medical condition, but there is a difference between the two. Knowing how to research, measure, and describe your own symptoms can be helpful when determining whether you or someone else requires medical attention.

When signs and symptoms become severe, a trip to the hospital or a call to a medical practitioner should be made immediately.