What Is a Symptom?

A symptom is defined as a physical or mental factor that indicates a condition or disease. While the words symptom and sign are sometimes used interchangeably, there are differences between the two. The most noticeable difference is determined by who is observing it. Typically, when a patient notices something it is a symptom. When a doctor notices something it is a sign.

Symptom vs. Sign

A symptom is considered to be subjective evidence of a condition or disease. This means that a symptom is something experienced by the individual with the disease or condition. A sign is something that is identified by another person, such as a medical professional. Both symptoms and signs are used to determine the possible diagnosis of the condition or disease affecting the individual.


There are three distinct categories of symptoms. These include:

Chronic Symptoms: These are long lasting symptoms. Chronic symptoms can also be recurring. They are common in conditions such as cancer, asthma, and diabetes.

Relapsing Symptoms: These are symptoms that happened in the past, went away, and then came back. Relapsing symptoms can occur in conditions such as depression, anxiety, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and others.

Remitting Symptoms: These are symptoms that improve and often go completely away.

General symptoms are those that are related to the effects of a certain condition. For example, fever is a symptom of influenza, anorexia is a symptom of an eating disorder, and fatigue, sweating, and seizures are symptoms of drug or alcohol withdrawal.

There are also symptoms that are non-specific and do not indicate a disease or serious underlying medical or psychological condition. For example, fatigue can be a symptom of disease, but is also considered normal and experienced by most everyone after a particularly strenuous day or time period.

There are also certain diseases and conditions where there are no symptoms present. These are known as asymptomatic conditions or diseases. An example of this is hypertension (high blood pressure), where a patient does not feel any symptoms associated with their condition.

An asymptomatic infection is where a person may not develop any symptoms until well after the infection has incubated. Also known as subclinical infection, an asymptomatic infection is common in diseases such as HIV. HPV is another example of a subclinical infection that can incubate, then later cause cervical cancer or genital warts.


Symptoms are caused by whatever the underlying condition is that is making a person experience them. Some symptoms are fairly common in several different diseases and conditions, while other symptoms are more specific to a single cause.

Symptoms FAQ

What are the most common symptoms of depression?

Common symptoms of depression include: loss of energy, feeling hopeless, sadness, changes in appetite, irritability, anger, reckless behaviour, and self-loathing.

Are there certain symptoms associated with cancer?

Some symptoms associated with cancer can include: unexplained weight loss, throat constriction, a persistent sore throat, changes in bowel movements, changes in urination, lumps or bumps, coughing up blood or blood in the stool, and changes in skin moles, freckles, and warts. Having these symptoms does not mean a person has cancer, but they are common symptoms that cancer may be present in the body.

What are the most common symptoms of addiction?

Common symptoms that can indicate drug or alcohol addiction include: feeling the need to use regularly, spending money on drugs or alcohol even when a person can’t afford it, having intense cravings to use, focusing more and more attention on attaining and using a substance, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit, and not meeting responsibilities at work or school.

External Links

Symptom Checker: Symptoms & Signs A-Z, MedicineNet

Drug addiction, Mayo Clinic

Difference Between Signs And Symptoms,

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