Talking about Your Symptoms

Only you know how you are feeling. So when you describe your symptoms to a doctor or nurse, that’s when she or he is learning from you. In order to help them help you, here are a few tips for describing how you feel and for sharing your personal health concerns:

  • Give your doctor a basic description of your problem in one or two sentences if you can
  • Tell them when the symptoms began and how often they occur
  • Let them know if anything makes you feel better or worse
  • Tell them if you have ever experienced the problem before and under what circumstances
  • Tell them if anyone else in your family or workplace is experiencing the same symptoms

 Tips for Better Descriptions

  • Adjectives are important – Instead of telling your doctor you are in pain, use words like dull, throbbing, intense or sharp to describe what kind of pain it is. Or use a scale from 1 to 10 to describe the pain’s severity.
  • Describe how your symptoms effect of your daily life- Rather than saying "I can't do things like I used to," be specific. Some examples are "I'm sleeping 12 hours a day" or "I can't walk to my mailbox anymore" or "I have trouble standing up for more than 10 minutes." Give context and explain any measurable differences in how you carry out daily activities.
  • Tell your doctor where you’re experiencing symptoms- Point to the spot on your body if possible or take a picture of a lump or rash.
  • Write down your symptoms - Bring this list with to your appointment to help you remember.

For more advice, read Talking about Symptoms with Your Health Care Team.

Researching Your Symptoms Online

Many people look up their symptoms online before going to the doctor. While these searches can help you describe what’s going on during an appointment, they shouldn’t be used to self-diagnose.

We’ve reviewed several symptom checker websites and suggest the following:

  • WebMD’s Symptom Checker allows you to select parts of the body where you are experiencing symptoms for information about possible conditions. It also provides questions related to specific illnesses that you can ask at your doctor visit.
  • Harvard Health Publications, in partnership with Drugs.com, also offers a symptom checker along with an alphabetized list of common symptoms.
  • Mayo Clinic provides an online symptom checker that provides the most common possible causes for various symptoms.
  • Healthychildren.org is managed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and offers a KidDoc Symptom checker of some common symptoms in children.  You can hover over a part of the body or use the A-Z index of symptoms.
  • AARP also offers a symptom search.

Resources reviewed June 2013

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RESOURCES

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Participate in Your Treatment Participate In Your Treatment | How to manage medical treatments at home, including medications and dealing with side effects. More

Seek Knowledge About Your Health Seek Knowledge About Your Health | Advice on understanding your risk for disease(s) and finding online health information you can trust. More

Get Preventative Health Care Get Preventative Health Care | Advice about physical check-ups, disease screening, dental exams, vaccinations and immunizations. More

Promote Your Health Promote Your Health | Information on healthy lifestyles, improving health habits and help with common concerns, such as weight loss and exercise, pain and depression. More

Plan for Your End of Life Care Plan for Your End-of-Life Care | Information on caregiving, long-term and nursing care, palliative and hospice care and advance directives. More

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