Signs and symptoms

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Signs including (enlarged liver and spleen), and symptoms (including headache, and vomiting) of acute HIV infection. Symptoms of acute HIV infection.svg
Signs including (enlarged liver and spleen), and symptoms (including headache, and vomiting) of acute HIV infection.

Signs and symptoms are the observed or detectable signs, and experienced symptoms of an illness, injury, or condition. A sign for example may be a higher or lower temperature than normal, raised or lowered blood pressure or an abnormality showing on a medical scan. A symptom is something out of the ordinary that is experienced by an individual such as feeling feverish, a headache or other pain or pains in the body. [1] [2]


Signs and symptoms


A medical sign is an objective observable indication of a disease, injury, or abnormal physiological state that may be detected during a physical examination, examining the patient history, or diagnostic procedure. [3] These signs are visible or otherwise detectable such as a rash or bruise. Medical signs, along with symptoms, assist in formulating diagnostic hypothesis. Examples of signs include elevated blood pressure, nail clubbing of the fingernails or toenails, staggering gait, and arcus senilis and arcus juvenilis of the eyes.


A sign is different from an " indication " — the activity of a condition 'pointing to' (thus "indicating") a remedy, not the reverse (viz., it is not a remedy 'pointing to' a condition) [4] – which is a specific reason for using a particular treatment.


A symptom is something felt or experienced, such as pain or dizziness. Signs and symptoms are not mutually exclusive, for example a subjective feeling of fever can be noted as sign by using a thermometer that registers a high reading. [5]

Cardinal signs and symptoms

Cardinal signs and symptoms are specific even to the point of being pathognomonic. A cardinal sign or cardinal symptom can also refer to the major sign or symptom of a disease. [6] Abnormal reflexes can indicate problems with the nervous system. Signs and symptoms are also applied to physiological states outside the context of disease, as for example when referring to the signs and symptoms of pregnancy, or the symptoms of dehydration. Sometimes a disease may be present without showing any signs or symptoms when it is known as being asymptomatic. [7] The disorder may be discovered through tests including scans. An infection may be asymptomatic which may still be transmissible. [7]

Signs vs. symptoms

Signs are different from experienced symptoms. A sign of a disorder is something that may be observed by another or detected during a medical examination or procedure. [3] For example high blood pressure may be noted as a sign during an examination for which there have been no reported symptoms. A symptom is something experienced and reportable by a person such as a headache or fatigue. Signs and symptoms may overlap, such as a bloody nose, which the individual experiences as unusual (symptom) and which others observe (sign).[ citation needed ]

The CDC lists various diseases by their signs and symptoms such as for measles which includes a high fever, conjunctivitis, and cough, followed a few days later by the measles rash. [8]


Signs and symptoms are often non-specific, but some combinations can be suggestive of certain diagnoses, helping to narrow down what may be wrong. A particular set of characteristic signs and symptoms that may be associated with a disorder is known as a syndrome. In cases where the underlying cause is known the syndrome is named as for example Down syndrome and Noonan syndrome. Other syndromes such as acute coronary syndrome may have a number of possible causes.


When a disease is evidenced by symptoms it is known as symptomatic. There are many conditions including subclinical infections that display no symptoms, and these are termed asymptomatic. Signs and symptoms may be mild or severe, brief or longer-lasting when they may become reduced (remission), or then recur (relapse or recrudescence) known as a flare-up. A flare-up may show more severe symptoms. [9]

The term chief complaint, also "presenting problem", is used to describe the initial concern of an individual when seeking medical help, and once this is clearly noted a history of the present illness may be taken. The symptom that ultimately leads to a diagnosis is called a cardinal symptom.[ citation needed ]Some symptoms can be misleading as a result of referred pain, where for example a pain in the right shoulder may be due to an inflamed gallbladder and not to presumed muscle strain. [10]


Many diseases have an early prodromal stage where a few signs and symptoms may suggest the presence of a disorder before further specific symptoms may emerge. Measles for example has a prodromal presentation that includes a hacking cough, fever, and Koplik's spots in the mouth. [11] Over half of migraine episodes have a prodromal phase. [12] Schizophrenia has a notable prodromal stage, [13] as has dementia. [14]

Nonspecific symptoms

Nonspecific symptoms are very general that can be associated with a wide range of conditions. They are also known as constitutional symptoms when they affect the sense of well-being. The symptoms include weight loss, headache, pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, night sweats, and malaise. [15] A constitutional symptom may be primary or secondary.[ citation needed ]

Vital signs

Vital signs are the four signs that can give an immediate measurement of the body's overall functioning and health status. They are temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The ranges of these measurements vary with age, weight, gender and with general health. [16]

A digital application has been developed for use in clinical settings that measures three of the vital signs (not temperature) using just a smartphone, and has been approved by NHS England. The application is registered as Lifelight First, and Lifelight Home is under development (2020) for monitoring-use by people at home using just the camera on their smartphone or tablet. This will additionally measure oxygen saturation and atrial fibrillation. Other devices are then not needed. [17]


Many conditions are indicated by a group of known signs, or signs and symptoms. These can be a group of three known as a triad: a group of four known as a tetrad, and a group of five known as a petrad. An example of a triad is Meltzer's triad presenting purpura a rash, arthralgia painful joints, and myalgia painful and weak muscles. Meltzer's triad indicates the condition cryoglobulinemia. Huntington's disease is a neurodegenerative disease that is characterized by a triad of motor, cognitive, and psychiatric signs and symptoms. [18] A large number of these groups that can be characteristic of a particular disease are known as a syndrome. Noonan syndrome for example, has a diagnostic set of unique facial and musculoskeletal features. [19] Some syndromes such as nephrotic syndrome may have a number of underlying causes that are all related to diseases that affect the kidneys. [20]

Sometimes a child or young adult may have symptoms suggestive of a genetic disorder that cannot be identified even after genetic testing. In such cases the term SWAN (syndrome without a name) may be used. Often a diagnosis may be made at some future point when other more specific symptoms emerge but many cases may remain undiagnosed. The inability to diagnose may be due to a unique combination of symptoms or an overlap of conditions, or to the symptoms being atypical of a known disorder, or to the disorder being extremely rare. [21]

Positive and negative

Sensory symptoms can also be described as positive symptoms, or as negative symptoms depending on whether the symptom is abnormally present such as tingling or itchiness, or abnormally absent such as loss of smell. The following terms are used for negative symptoms – hypoesthesia is a partial loss of sensitivity to moderate stimuli, such as pressure, touch, warmth, cold. Anesthesia is the complete loss of sensitivity to stronger stimuli, such as pinprick. Hypoalgesia (analgesia) is loss of sensation to painful stimuli. [22]

Symptoms are also grouped in to negative and positive for some mental disorders such as schizophrenia. [23]

Positive symptoms are those that are present in the disorder and are not normally experienced by most individuals and reflects an excess or distortion of normal functions. [24] Examples are hallucinations, delusions, and bizarre behavior.

Negative symptoms are functions that are normally found but that are diminished or absent such as apathy and anhedonia. [24]


Neuropsychiatric symptoms are present in many degenerative disorders including dementia, and Parkinson's disease. Symptoms commonly include apathy, anxiety, and depression. [25] Neurological and psychiatric symptoms are also present in some genetic disorders such as Wilson's disease. [26] Executive dysfunction is an often found symptom in many disorders including schizophrenia, and ADHD.[ citation needed ]


Radiologic signs are abnormal medical findings on imaging scanning. These include the Mickey Mouse sign and the Golden S sign. When using imaging to find the cause of a complaint, another unrelated finding may be found known as an incidental finding. [27]


Cardinal signs and symptoms are those that may be diagnostic, and pathognomonic – of a certainty of diagnosis. Inflammation for example has a recognised group of cardinal signs and symptoms, [28] as does exacerbations of chronic bronchitis, [29] and Parkinson's disease.

In contrast to a pathognomonic cardinal sign, the absence of a sign or symptom can often rule out a condition. This is known by the Latin term sine qua non . For example, the absence of known genetic mutations specific for a hereditary disease would rule out that disease. [30] Another example is where the vaginal pH is less than 4.5, a diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis would be excluded. [31]


A reflex is an automatic response in the body to a stimulus. [32] Its absence, reduced (hypoactive), or exaggerated (hyperactive) response can be a sign of damage to the central nervous system or peripheral nervous system. In the patellar reflex (knee-jerk) for example, its reduction or absence is known as Westphal's sign and may indicate damage to lower motor neurons. When the response is exaggerated damage to the upper motor neurons may be indicated.[ citation needed ]


A number of medical conditions are associated with a distinctive facial expression or appearance known as a facies [33] An example is elfin facies which has facial features like those of the elf, and this may be associated with Williams syndrome, or Donohue syndrome. The most well-known facies is probably the Hippocratic facies that is seen on a person as they near death. [34]

Anamnestic signs

Anamnestic signs (from anamnēstikós, ἀναμνηστικός, "able to recall to mind") are signs that indicate a past condition, for example paralysis in an arm may indicate a past stroke. [35] :81


Some diseases including cancers, and infections may be present but show no signs or symptoms and these are known as asymptomatic. [7] A gallstone may be asymptomatic and only discovered as an incidental finding. [7] Easily spreadable viral infections such as COVID-19 may be asymptomatic but may still be transmissible. [36]



A symptom (from Greek σύμπτωμα, "accident, misfortune, that which befalls", [37] from συμπίπτω, "I befall", from συν- "together, with" and πίπτω, "I fall") is a departure from normal function or feeling. Symptomatology (also called semiology) is a branch of medicine dealing with the signs and symptoms of a disease. [38] [39] [40] This study also includes the indications of a disease. [41] It was first described as semiotics by Henry Stubbe in 1670 a term now used for the study of sign communication.[ citation needed ]

Prior to the nineteenth century there was little difference in the powers of observation between physician and patient. Most medical practice was conducted as a co-operative interaction between the physician and patient; this was gradually replaced by a "monolithic consensus of opinion imposed from within the community of medical investigators". [42] [43] Whilst each noticed much the same things, the physician had a more informed interpretation of those things: "the physicians knew what the findings meant and the layman did not". [35] :82

Development of medical testing

Painting of Rene Laennec in 1816 using an early method of auscultation on a man with tuberculosis. Laennec - Theobald Chartran.jpg
Painting of René Laennec in 1816 using an early method of auscultation on a man with tuberculosis.

A number of advances introduced mostly in the 19th century, allowed for more objective assessment by the physician in search of a diagnosis, and less need of input from the patient. [42] [43] [44] During the 20th century the introduction of a wide range of imaging techniques have made a huge impact on diagnostic capability. Other developments in the field of genetics, medical biochemistry, and molecular diagnostics have also played major roles.[ citation needed ]


The recognition of signs, and noting of symptoms may lead to a diagnosis. Otherwise a physical examination may be carried out, and a medical history taken. Further diagnostic medical tests such as blood tests, scans, and biopsies, may be needed. An X-ray for example would soon be diagnostic or not of a bone fracture. A noted significance detected during an examination or from a medical test may be known as a medical finding. [47]

Examples of signs and symptoms

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catatonia</span> Psychiatric behavioral syndrome

Catatonia is a complex neuropsychiatric behavioral syndrome that is characterized by abnormal movements, immobility, abnormal behaviors, and withdrawal. The onset of catatonia can be acute or subtle and symptoms can wax, wane, or change during episodes. There are several subtypes of catatonia: akinetic catatonia, excited catatonia, malignant catatonia, delirious mania, and self-injurious behaviors in autism.

Nosology is the branch of medical science that deals with the classification of diseases. Fully classifying a medical condition requires knowing its cause, the effects it has on the body, the symptoms that are produced, and other factors. For example, influenza is classified as an infectious disease because it is caused by a virus, and it is classified as a respiratory infection because the virus infects and damages certain tissues in the respiratory tract. The more that is known about the disease, the more ways the disease can be classified nosologically.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dementia with Lewy bodies</span> Type of progressive dementia

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is a type of dementia characterized by changes in sleep, behavior, cognition, movement, and regulation of automatic bodily functions. Memory loss is not always an early symptom. The disease worsens over time and is usually diagnosed when cognitive impairment interferes with normal daily functioning. Together with Parkinson's disease dementia, DLB is one of the two Lewy body dementias. It is a common form of dementia, but the prevalence is not known accurately and many diagnoses are missed. The disease was first described by Kenji Kosaka in 1976.

A syndrome is a set of medical signs and symptoms which are correlated with each other and often associated with a particular disease or disorder. The word derives from the Greek σύνδρομον, meaning "concurrence". When a syndrome is paired with a definite cause this becomes a disease. In some instances, a syndrome is so closely linked with a pathogenesis or cause that the words syndrome, disease, and disorder end up being used interchangeably for them. This substitution of terminology often confuses the reality and meaning of medical diagnoses. This is especially true of inherited syndromes. About one third of all phenotypes that are listed in OMIM are described as dysmorphic, which usually refers to the facial gestalt. For example, Down syndrome, Wolf–Hirschhorn syndrome, and Andersen–Tawil syndrome are disorders with known pathogeneses, so each is more than just a set of signs and symptoms, despite the syndrome nomenclature. In other instances, a syndrome is not specific to only one disease. For example, toxic shock syndrome can be caused by various toxins; premotor syndrome can be caused by various brain lesions; and premenstrual syndrome is not a disease but simply a set of symptoms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wernicke encephalopathy</span> Medical condition

Wernicke encephalopathy (WE), also Wernicke's encephalopathy, or wet brain is the presence of neurological symptoms caused by biochemical lesions of the central nervous system after exhaustion of B-vitamin reserves, in particular thiamine. The condition is part of a larger group of thiamine deficiency disorders that includes beriberi, in all its forms, and alcoholic Korsakoff syndrome. When it occurs simultaneously with alcoholic Korsakoff syndrome it is known as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Asymptomatic</span> Patient is a carrier for a disease or infection but experiences no symptoms

In medicine, any disease is classified asymptomatic if a patient tests as carrier for a disease or infection but experiences no symptoms. Whenever a medical condition fails to show noticeable symptoms after a diagnosis it might be considered asymptomatic.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kabuki syndrome</span> Medical condition

Kabuki syndrome is a congenital disorder of genetic origin. It affects multiple parts of the body, with varying symptoms and severity, although the most common is the characteristic facial appearance.

In healthcare, a differential diagnosis is a method of analysis of a patient's history and physical examination to arrive at the correct diagnosis. It involves distinguishing a particular disease or condition from others that present with similar clinical features. Differential diagnostic procedures are used by clinicians to diagnose the specific disease in a patient, or, at least, to consider any imminently life-threatening conditions. Often, each individual option of a possible disease is called a differential diagnosis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder</span> Group of conditions resulting from maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy

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Pathognomonic is a term, often used in medicine, that means "characteristic for a particular disease". A pathognomonic sign is a particular sign whose presence means that a particular disease is present beyond any doubt. Labelling a sign or symptom "pathognomonic" represents a marked intensification of a "diagnostic" sign or symptom.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Macroglossia</span> Medical condition

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adie syndrome</span> Neurological disorder

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Medical model is the term coined by psychiatrist R. D. Laing in his The Politics of the Family and Other Essays (1971), for the "set of procedures in which all doctors are trained". It includes complaint, history, physical examination, ancillary tests if needed, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis with and without treatment.

Rabson–Mendenhall syndrome is a rare autosomal recessive disorder characterized by severe insulin resistance. The disorder is caused by mutations in the insulin receptor gene. Symptoms include growth abnormalities of the head, face and nails, along with the development of acanthosis nigricans. Treatment involves controlling blood glucose levels by using insulin and incorporating a strategically planned, controlled diet. Also, direct actions against other symptoms may be taken This syndrome usually affects children and has a prognosis of 1–2 years.

In medicine, a prodrome is an early sign or symptom that often indicates the onset of a disease before more diagnostically specific signs and symptoms develop. It is derived from the Greek word prodromos, meaning "running before". Prodromes may be non-specific symptoms or, in a few instances, may clearly indicate a particular disease, such as the prodromal migraine aura.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Medical diagnosis</span> Process to identify a disease or disorder

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Neurological disorder</span> Any disorder of the nervous system

A neurological disorder is any disorder of the nervous system. Structural, biochemical or electrical abnormalities in the brain, spinal cord or other nerves can result in a range of symptoms. Examples of symptoms include paralysis, muscle weakness, poor coordination, loss of sensation, seizures, confusion, pain and altered levels of consciousness. There are many recognized neurological disorders, some relatively common, but many rare. They may be assessed by neurological examination, and studied and treated within the specialities of neurology and clinical neuropsychology.

Austrian syndrome, also known as Osler's triad, is a medical condition that was named after Robert Austrian in 1957. The presentation of the condition consists of pneumonia, endocarditis, and meningitis, all caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae. It is associated with alcohol use disorder due to hyposplenism and can be seen in males between the ages of 40–60 years old. Robert Austrian was not the first one to describe the condition, but Richard Heschl or William Osler were not able to link the signs to the bacteria because microbiology was not yet developed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vogt–Koyanagi–Harada disease</span> Medical condition

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