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, 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.
  • 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

Who’s Who in Your Doctor’s Office
Medical offices have a lot of staff but one common goal—helping you, the patient. Here are some of the people you may meet during your doctor’s appointment.
Getting the Most Out of a Doctor’s Appointment
Doctor’s appointments are often brief. Here’s how to quickly explain what’s wrong so you can get the help you need.
Talking About Medical Tests
Before you agree to medical tests, here are suggestions for some questions to ask, useful websites for understanding medical tests and information about disease screening.
Asking Your Doctor Questions
One of the most important things you can do during a doctor’s appointment is to ask questions. Here’s advice on what to ask and how.
Understanding a New Prescription
Have a new prescription? Here’s what you need to know about taking any new drug and advice for selecting a pharmacy and paying for medications.
Talking About Your Symptoms
Tips on how to research your symptoms online and describe them during your doctor visit.


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