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Difference Between Sign and Symptom


It isn’t uncommon now to search for your signs and symptoms on Google to understand any unusual changes in your body. But, do you look for the signs or the symptoms?

The doctors often ask if you have any signs of a particular condition despite being told all details. You may think that you have already mentioned the signs when you could only be talking about the symptoms. A sign is the apparent observable feature or change in your body, whereas a symptom may not show and only be felt.

For example, you may tell your physician about neck pain. The neck pain could be a symptom of an underlying thyroid issue, like hyper or hypothyroidism, whereas an enlarged thyroid is a sign. 

Let’s talk about the differences between signs and symptoms in detail.

Comparison Table

ObservanceAnyoneOnly felt
IndicationIndicated by ObserverNoted by Patient
TypesDiagnostic, prognostic,
pathognomic, anamnestic
Chronic, relapsing,
and remitting
ExamplesCough, swollen eyesNausea, headache

Sign and Symptom Definition

Signs and symptoms are collectively known as the set of observable and unobservable changes in the body that may indicate a medical condition. Signs and symptoms can also be defined separately as;

What is a Sign?

The medical definition of a sign is similar to its general meaning, which means to give information about something. In medicine, a sign is an observable characteristic that gives you details about an underlying health condition. Signs are of different types and can be observed in different ways. A rash on your arm could be a sign of a bacterial or viral infection, and disturbed blood pressure may depict cardiac issues.


You may have also heard of vital signs. They are also a type of sign and hold crucial importance in healthcare. Vital signs or vitals are referred to readings about different anatomical and physiological features like pulse, breathing, blood test, temperature, X-ray, MRI, etc., that may indicate any health issues. They help monitor the condition of the heart and the patient’s vitality during surgeries to avoid complications.

Anyone can observe signs, yet you must consult a doctor and not self-medicate. You may understand the signs or make an accurate prognosis, but cannot diagnose the issue. It can lead to further problems as each type of sign relates to a particular infection or disease.

Types of Signs

Signs are typically categorized into four types:

Diagnostic Signs

As the name indicates, these signs are used for diagnostic purposes. One of the most common examples of diagnostic signs is a runny nose or redness on the arms due to a hypersensitivity reaction; a stage of allergic reaction.

Prognostic Signs

Prognostic signs contribute to the prognosis of a disease. These signs help the physicians understand the patient’s condition and indicate if there could be any complications in the future to treat or provide an anaphylactic treatment.

Pathognomic Signs

Pathognomic signs are similar to diagnostic signs but not entirely the same. While diagnostic signs help diagnose a disease, pathognomic signs offer more certainty about the disease diagnosis.

Anamnestic Signs

Anamnestic signs are indicators of past medical conditions, such as marks on your body after suffering a dermatological issue.

What are the Symptoms?

As opposed to signs, symptoms are not observable or measurable easily. You may say that while your doctor can see signs and he can make a diagnosis based on the visible changes in your body, symptoms can only be described by you to help your doctor prescribe you medicine accordingly. So, it is essential to understand your symptoms and explain them to your doctor properly for him to make the right diagnosis.


A stomachache or headache is the most common example of a symptom. Your doctor cannot observe the headache or stomachache, but you can describe it to the doctor to recommend diagnostic tests. If you have a lesion in your stomach that the doctor may observe through a CT scan or an MRI, it is a symptom following the sign (stomachache) you contacted the doctor for. Signs and symptoms are of critical importance in medicine as they enable your healthcare provider to offer you immediate care when needed.

Types of Symptoms

Though signs are classified on their role in diagnosis, symptoms are categorized based on their severity and occurrence. The three types of symptoms are:

Chronic Symptoms

These symptoms seem to stay for a larger period and do not go away until treated properly. Sometimes, they may also come back if undiagnosed or treated symptomatically. Examples include breathlessness and frequent coughing in the case of COPD and asthma.

Relapsing Symptoms

As the name indicates, relapsing symptoms are those which may be present for a while, go away and come back after some time.

Remitting Symptoms

Remitting symptoms are described as symptoms that go away on their own or through treatment but do not come back like relapsing symptoms. Examples include dizziness and fatigue due to vitamin and mineral deficiency that goes away on taking supplements.

Difference Between Signs and Symptoms



Signs are observable evidence of an underlying condition and can be seen or calculated.


On the contrary, symptoms are not observable and can only be felt by the patient.



Signs are objective in nature.


On the other hand, symptoms are subjective in nature.



Signs can be observed by yourself, a friend, a healthcare professional, or anyone else as it is visible.


On the other hand, symptoms can only be experienced by the person suffering from the condition.



Signs, especially vital signs, can be measured by pulsometer, oximeter, sphygmomanometer, etc.


Symptoms are not measurable, but if you are in pain, your healthcare professional may ask about the intensity on a scale of 1 to 10.



Signs are of four types; diagnostic signs, prognostic signs, pathognomic signs, and anamnestic signs.


There are three common types of symptoms; chronic symptoms, relapsing symptoms, and remitting symptoms.



Examples of signs are rashes on your body due to a chemical reaction, a cough that may be a sign of COPD, or a runny nose and swollen eyes during the pollen season.


Examples of symptoms include headache, backache, nausea, etc.


Can symptoms be verified?

As symptoms are not measurable, they cannot be verified but only communicated by the patient to the healthcare professional. You can only be sure if the patient is speaking the truth by conducting diagnostic tests to find the root cause of the symptom.

What are the signs and symptoms of Covid 19?

The common signs of covid are fever, cough, runny nose, vomiting, and diarrhea, while the patient may also have symptoms like headache, muscle and body aches, loss of smell or taste, and nausea.

What are the early signs of diabetes?

Besides the symptoms like increased hunger and thirst, early signs of diabetes include a dry mouth, itchy skin, and frequent urination. These signs and symptoms can help prevent diabetes if diagnosed and taken care of at the right time.

The Bottom Line

Signs and symptoms are critical for diagnosis as they push you to visit a doctor and convey what you feel. If no signs and symptoms occurred, we would never know that there is something wrong with us and get medical consultation. We must not ignore the symptoms and signs and visit a doctor at the earliest to get help. 

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