Sometimes patients and physicians get confused when they are asked to differentiate between sign and symptoms. This article highlights the major differences between a sign and symptom with medical examples.
Difference in Definitions:
The sign is what a physician or doctors see whereas symptom is what a patient experience and cannot be verified.
Difference in Indications:
Subjective or Objective:
Signs are objective as they are visible and can be measured by using some suitable medical devices. Symptoms are subjective as they cannot see and can only be felt or experienced. It is duty of patient to discuss all his symptoms with physician for proper diagnosis.
Difference in Verification:
As we know that symptom are only felt by the patients and physicians is unable to get any information about the symptoms of a disease if you do not tell him. It means symptoms which a patient is going to tell the patient cannot be verified but the signs can be verified. For example feeling tired or feeling dizzy is a symptom and fever, hypertension (blood pressure) are signs.
Lester S. King, a physician and author of several medical books, wrote:
“The belief that a symptom is a subjective report of the patient, while a sign is something that the physician elicits, is a 20th-century product that contravenes the usage of two thousand years of medicine. In practice, now as always, the physician makes his judgments from the information that he gathers. The modern usage of signs and symptoms emphasizes merely the source of the information, which is not really too important.
Far more important is the use that the information serves. If the data, however derived, lead to some inferences and go beyond themselves, those data are signs. If, however, the data remain as mere observations without interpretation, they are symptoms, regardless of their source. Symptoms become signs when they lead to an interpretation. The distinction between information and inference underlies all medical thinking and should be preserved.”
Difference in Types:
The symptoms are of different types. Such as;
- Chronic symptoms that last for longer duration (in case of blood pressure, asthma, and cancer)
- Relapsing symptoms that has reappeared after disappearing (symptoms of cancer, depression and multiple sclerosis)
- Remitting symptoms are those when there is an improvement or symptoms have been eradicated.
- Remember sometimes there are some diseases and infections that can remain asymptomatic for a certain period such as symptoms of AIDS, hypertension and breast cancer.
- Symptomatic diseases/conditions, There is a set of some definite and specific symptoms of a disease or medical condition. Such diseases are termed as symptomatic diseases.
- Constitutional symptoms, These are general types of symptoms that are linked with a disease or disorder and can be related to whole body such as fever, loss of appetite or weight loss.
- Presenting symptom are those types of symptoms that compel the patient to seek medical attention. There are also termed as chief complaints. For example a patient with prostate cancer could have frequent urination as the presenting symptom.
- Cardinal symptom, a type of symptom that confirms the diagnosis.
Signs on the other hand can also be of different types as mentioned below.
- Prognostic signs demonstrate about the recovery of certain diseases or infection. These do not indicate the disease.
- Anamnestic signs describe the past of a disease such as skin scars due to acne.
- Diagnostic signs facilitate the physician regarding the diagnosis of a disease or infection such as increased levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA) in the blood of a patient.
- Pathognominic signs, “A pathognominic sign is one that leaves the physician certain, sure, without a doubt, that a particular disease is present. For example, thickened lion-like facial skin (leonine facies) is a sure sign (pathognominic sign) of leprosy. A pseudomembrane on the tonsils, pharynx and nasal cavity is a pathognominic sign of diphtheria. A prostate biopsy is when a sample of the prostate is taken and observed under the microscope – if cancerous cells are detected there is no doubt the patient has prostate cancer.”
Difference in Examples:
- Increased blood pressure (hypertension) is a sign but light headache is a symptom.
- Feeling tired is a symptom but higher levels of sugar in the blood can only be a sign as it can only be measured in the laboratory.
- Symptoms are described by a patient and signs are observed by physician
- Symptoms are subjective but signs on the other hand are objective
- The physical manifestations of a disease or injury are termed as sings whereas what a patient experience about disease or injury are termed as symptoms.
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