Do You Speak Sign Language?
The Difference Between a Sign & a Symptom

The terms, signs and symptoms, refer to distinct medical terms with different medical meanings—even so, patients and the typical layperson frequently confuse the two.  Even healthcare professionals may slip-up and use the words interchangeably.

Symptoms – A Personal Patient Experience

Only patients themselves can experience symptoms firsthand.  Symptoms represent the concerns, feelings, aches, pains or reactions that compel patients to make an appointment with their doctor in the first place.  Common medical symptoms used by patients to describe their unique physical complaints, or feelings, to a physician include things like fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, or a sore throat.

Signs – A Physician’s Diagnostic Tool

Medical signs represent objective physiological patient conditions the doctor can detect or measure. When patients listen to their own bodies and verbalize their subjective symptoms, it then becomes the doctor’s job to find and interpret any relevant medical signs. Examples of signs include a patient’s measured body temperature, blood pressure, a visibly red or swollen throat, and anything else a physician can objectively observe, detect, or measure.

Symptoms and Signs – A Great Team

During a physician examination, the doctor uses his specialized knowledge and experiential skills and equipment to objectively measure, detect, or observe signs and conditions that could possibly cause the patient’s symptoms. For example, if a patient tells his doctor that he feels hot, the doctor can both physically touch the patient’s skin and take a temperature measurement to determine if he has a fever.   The heat, or flushing, experienced by the patient is a symptom; the fever, objectively observed and measured by the doctor, is a sign of a larger medical condition causing the fever.

Physician Knowledge and Experience – Team Quarterback

Physicians use their extensive didactic training, combined with experiential knowledge to interpret signs and make a diagnosis. The physician makes his diagnosis based on the symptomatic complaints of the patient and his interpretation of signs he observes, detects, and measures during examination. At times, the doctor must use a little intuition when making a diagnosis or ordering further tests. For example, a patient visiting her physician with symptom complaints like chapped lips, cracked nails, and dry mouth could have the beginnings of dehydration that an alert physician will detect and treat. Or, her symptoms, along with accompanying signs, could indicate a more serious condition like diabetes or an autoimmune disorder, such as Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Physician and Patient – Partners in Health

Most medical conditions have both signs and symptoms that help doctors identify, diagnose, and treat them.  Development of an honest, open, and frank communication channel between patient and physician is critical in obtaining an accurate diagnosis. Doctors cannot read patients’ mind; nor, can patients expect them to know about their symptoms if they do not tell them.  Similarly, patients do not possess the extensive knowledge and training required to diagnose a disease or condition.  However, when patients and physicians partner together with a shared goal of wellness, the results will exhibit both the internal symptoms and the outward signs of optimal patient health.