How Basic Medical Terms Describe Disease Signs, Symptoms & Syndromes

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  • 0:01 Describing Diseases
  • 1:37 Signs
  • 3:36 Symptoms
  • 4:38 Syndrome
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

We will look at how we define signs, symptoms, and syndromes and how they are different from one another. There are some examples of each that will be covered in this lesson.

Describing Diseases

I bet you have had car problems at some point in your life. Your car may have been making a strange noise or doing something weird that prevented it from running correctly. You decide to take the car to the mechanic, and what happens? It stops making the noise and seems to run perfectly fine! The mechanic asks you, What did you bring the car in for today? You frantically try to imitate the sound or demonstrate what the car was doing in the hope that the mechanic can determine the problem and, more importantly, fix it! You know good and well that as soon as you leave, the car will start doing it again. Finally, the car does the strange thing, and the mechanic tells you the problem then fixes it.

The same thing kind of happens with our bodies. You may start to look different from usual, start secreting something strange, or just start not feel like your normal self. You decide you have had enough of feeling like, blah, and go to the doctor. What is the first thing that the doctor asks? What brings you in today? You are then at the point of having to explain to the doctor what you feel and then the doctor will examine you to determine what is wrong. Unlike your car, your body will likely still be doing what it was doing all along and, in some cases, it is now worse. The doctor determines what is wrong and sends you on your way with some pills to cure whatever ails you.

What you just went through were the signs and symptoms of the syndrome in your body. What is the difference between those three terms you ask? Let's look at each one now.


The signs of a disease are the changes in your body that the doctors can detect when they do an examination. Signs are able to be seen or measured. The signs give doctors clues about what may be going on with your body. The doctors have no idea what may be going on when they start, but they look for any signs of the disease.

It's whole lot like when you drive down a street you have never been on before. There are signs along the way that let you know what is going to happen with the street. If there is a bump, there is a sign for it. If there is a sharp curve, then there is a sign for it. There isn't a sign to let you know the street is straightforward, but there is a sign for anything unusual or unexpected that may happen with the road. The same is true for our bodies.

One example of a sign of a disease is a fever. In medical terminology, the term for fever is febrile. This is a sign because it can be measured, in this case by using a thermometer.

Another sign is a change in skin color. There could be several different possible changes in skin color, such as yellowing of the skin, which is xanthochromia, or bluish color of the skin, which is cyanosis.

A possible sign of disease is inflammation, which is described using the suffix -itis in medical terminology. For example, a person may display arthritis, which is inflammation of the joints.

Having a fast heartbeat, which is tachycardia in medical terminology, is another sign that can come with some diseases. You may initially think this isn't something that the doctor can see. You are right! It is, however, something that can be measured by taking a pulse or even by doing an EKG.

Hemorrhage can also be seen with some diseases. This means that there is a bursting forth of blood.


Unlike signs, symptoms are the sensations that you have been feeling in relation to the disease. These are going to be things that no one else can detect. They cannot be measured, and it is completely up to you to explain them.

One common symptom is fatigue, which is simply being overly tired. This is a symptom for many different illnesses.

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