The Difference Between a Sign and a Symptom in Medicine
Aging Matters

Most of us go online to research "why" they're feeling a certain way. We wonder, am I sick, what could it be, and will I die, right? They are common for most of us. But once we land on a page detailing the signs and symptoms of a particular ailment, it's confusing. So, how do we know the difference between a sign and a symptom?

In medical terms, a symptom is subjective (can only be described by the person feeling them) while a sign is objective (can be seen). Signs are what a doctor (and other people) sees, symptoms are what a patient experiences. For example, blood in the stool, a skin rash, is a sign, a doctor, nurse, or even a patient can see. A symptom is a character of a disease. Whereas, a sign is the definite indication of one.

Medical professionals use symptoms and signs as clues to determine the most likely diagnosis. The clues help physicians to know which tests to order.

Medical signs aren't always seen or read with the eyes. They're read by touch or by listening. Sometimes, signs show symptoms (like how a crying baby may be hungry). Is your daughter scratching her arm (sign)? She must feel itchy (symptom).

However, medical conditions can use both to identify what is wrong. Heart attack victims may complain of symptoms, pain or pressure in the chest and arm, and show signs, clutching the arm or chest, pale face, sweating, abnormal heart rate and high blood pressure. So, pay attention to both.

Take a quiz to test your medical knowledge (AARP)

(The correct answers at the bottom)

Can you name that symptom?

1. What condition causes the inability to digest the sugar found in milk?

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Celiac disease
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Hypoglycemia

2. A loss of appetite, indigestion, and abdominal bloating links to

  • Colitis
  • Gallstones
  • Colic
  • Menopause

3. What is tinnitus?

  • A ruptured eardrum
  • An inner ear infection
  • A ringing in your ear
  • A metallic aftertaste

4. What could a change in personality indicate?

  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Pituitary tumor
  • Stroke
  • All of the above

5 Which of these is NOT a typical symptom of irritable bowel syndrome?

  • Gas
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Back pain

6. What is the term for the condition that causes patchy hair loss?

  • Eczema
  • Alopecia areata
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Scabies

7. Which heart attack symptom do women overlook?

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Skin rash
  • Ringing in the ears

8. Dry mouth, lack of tears, diarrhea, and lethargy are all signs of

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Dehydration
  • High cholesterol

9. Which is NOT a symptom of sleep apnea?

  • Increased appetite
  • Snoring
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache

10. Which is a common symptom of glaucoma?

  • Double-vision
  • A loss of peripheral vision
  • Red or itchy eyes
  • Sensitivity to light

Correct answers:

1-Lactose intolerance


3-A ringing in your ear

4-All of the above

5- Back pain

6-Alopecia areata



9-Increased appetite

10- A loss of peripheral vision

Carol Marak is the editor at She's earned a Certificate in the Fundamentals of Gerontology from the University of CA, Davis. Contact Carol at

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Aging Matters is a weekly column tackling everyday challenges that our growing elderly population and their loved ones face. It is also published in a variety of syndication partners including newspapers all over the country.

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