The difference between signs and symptoms

When a patient experiences symptoms, or exhibits signs, this is a clear signal that they are suffering from an injury or illness. The noticeable symptoms and signs show that the body is under stress to heal itself. As the name suggests, there is a difference between signs and symptoms.

Signs are things that may be spotted by someone other than the patient (perhaps a relative, friend or doctor). For example, pneumonia is often recognizable by fever, quickened breathing and abnormal lung function heard through a stethoscope.


Symptoms are felt by the patient but not easily noticeable for other people. Feelings of fatigue, aching muscles or joints and being short of breath are common symptoms of pneumonia.
Many signs and symptoms can be indicative of more than one illness, so healthcare professionals need to get an overview before making a diagnosis. For example, childhood rashes are common indicators of any number of conditions, including allergies, skin infections, measles or even an environmental reaction, such as to poison ivy. However, if the rash is accompanied by a high temperature, chills, aching limbs and a throat infection, this combination gives a better picture of the illness. Medical tests such as blood tests, x-rays and biopsies can add further clues to successfully diagnose and treat the illness.

Common cancer signs and symptoms

The group of diseases that we call cancer are so broad in scope that different kinds of cancer can cause very different signs and symptoms. These often depend on the location of the cancer, its size and how much it is affecting the surrounding organs and tissues. When cancer spreads through the body (metastasizes), the patient can experience signs and symptoms in different body parts.

The growth of a cancer causes it to exert pressure on the organs, blood vessels and nerves that are in its vicinity. Some of the signs and symptoms are caused by this pressure. The location of the cancer determines how soon the patient starts to show signs and feel symptoms. For example, even tiny tumours in crucial areas such as the brain can cause problems.

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