The body functions reliably most of the time, and we are not aware of the internal processes that keep us alive and enable us to carry out everyday activities. However, sometimes we experience warning signals, or symptoms, that tell us something is wrong. Most symptoms are caused by minor illness or injury and clear up within a few days. However, it is important to be able to tell when a symptom requires medical attention, and the question-and-answer charts in this section provide guidance on how to recognize this.
Symptoms take many forms. Some involve a new sensation, such as pain in the chest, that only you can perceive. Others involve a change in a normal body function, such as frequent passing of urine, or a change in appearance, such as the development of a rash. Such new sensations or changes in the way we look or function alert us to the possibility of illness and may prompt us to seek medical help. However, when investigating the cause of your problem, your doctor does not rely only on a description of your symptoms. He or she will also look for signs of illness. Signs are physical evidence of a disorder or illness that the doctor can detect during a physical examination but of which you may be unaware. For example, if you have a lung condition, shortness of breath might be a symptom that you experience. When the doctor listens to your chest through a stethoscope, he or she may detect abnormal sounds with each breath; these are a sign of the disorder. The combination of symptoms and signs provides the doctor with a pattern that may suggest a diagnosis.
Doctors learn by experience to recognize patterns of symptoms and signs, and most of us learn to do the same for a particular illness if we have had similar symptoms on several occasions. For example, a person who has recurrent attacks of migraine is usually able to recognize the symptoms at an early stage and knows the best way to bring the attacks under control. Similarly, the symptoms of many common infectious illnesses have become general knowledge. Most people recognize aching muscles, runny nose, tiredness, and fever as the usual symptoms of flu. However, dealing with unfamiliar symptoms is not as easy. In these cases, you should make a note of your symptoms so that you can describe them accurately to your doctor or other health professional. Information that may be helpful includes when the symptom started; which part of the body is affected; whether it came on suddenly or developed gradually; and whether it is continuous or intermittent. If you have a pain, it may also be useful for you to determine how it feels, such as whether it is dull, sharp, burning, or throbbing.
Certain symptoms can be assessed very accurately because they can be measured. Probably the most familiar example is assessing whether or not a person has a fever and, if so, how high the fever is, by measuring body temperature using a thermometer. It is especially useful to be able to measure a symptom in young children because they may not be able to understand or tell you how they are feeling.
Most people seek help for symptoms that they find troublesome, but it is not wise to assume that an apparently harmless symptom does not need treatment. For example, a rash may cause distress even though it is unlikely to have a serious cause, but a painless swelling may be the first sign of cancer and should not be ignored.
The charts in this section guide you through a series of questions about your symptoms in order to suggest possible causes and the most appropriate course of action. The charts tell you whether you can safely treat your symptoms yourself or whether you need medical attention. They also say how urgently medical help should be sought if required.
Some symptoms, such as loss of consciousness, are obvious emergencies. If a symptom could indicate a medical emergency in some circumstances, this is highlighted on the charts. Other symptoms, such as a sore throat, are often due to a minor infection and should clear up whether or not they are treated. In these cases, the charts give advice on self-help measures that may relieve discomfort in the meantime. If over-the-counter remedies are appropriate, the charts will tell you. However, you should consult your doctor if you are unsure whether a remedy is suitable for you and read the manufacturer’s instructions before taking medication. The charts advise on how long to keep treating yourself and when you need to see your doctor.
Although the charts can help you to decide on the best way to deal with your symptoms, they cannot be applied across all situations. For example, even what may appear to be minor complaints should receive medical attention when they occur in people who are elderly or in those with reduced immunity, such as people undergoing chemotherapy as part of cancer treatment.
If you do need to see your doctor, he or she will assess your condition by asking you detailed questions about the nature of your symptoms. The questions on the charts should help you to think about your symptoms so that you will be able to describe them accurately to the doctor. The doctor will probably carry out a physical examination and may also arrange tests to confirm whatever diagnosis is suggested by your symptoms and signs.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.