Often in First Aid, people talk about the “signs & symptoms” of a patient together, almost as if they are the same thing. But they’re not.
For example, you can often clearly see when someone is experiencing pain by the look on their face – a sign of injury or trauma – but you may not know their symptoms unless you ask.
When you see someone experiencing some sort of trauma, injury or other experience that you think may require first aid there are very distinctive things to look for. These are called signs.
Put simply, a sign is something you, as the person attempting to provide first aid, can either see, hear, feel or measure. You use your own senses to discover these signs.
Our own eyes can tell us a lot about a potential injury. Does the area look swollen or discoloured? If it’s a knee, wrist, ankle etc, how does it look compared to the other one? Is the person guarding the area, shielding it or rubbing it? Are they sweating or shivering? Can you see any blood?
Touch is another sense that tells us so much. Is the area painful to touch? Can you feel a raised temperature on the person’s brow? Does the limb feel swollen or tight, compared to the other limb?
Hearing also helps us measure signs. Breathing for example is often a telling sign of trauma. Can you hear the person struggling for air, are they making raspy or gurgling sounds when they try to breathe? (It may be hard to hear in a noisy environment, but the sounds someone makes can be very important.)
Finally, your sense of smell can also measure signs. For example, can you smell alcohol on the patient’s breath? Have they been incontinent? Combined with other factors these signs can also be important and should be noted.
Symptoms differ from signs in that they are what the person themselves is experiencing as opposed to what you tell from your own observations. Most often people will be able to tell you what symptoms they are experiencing, which you may not yourself be able to readily observe.
(Of course, if they are unconscious, semi-conscious or too young to speak, they may not be able to tell you any of the symptoms they are experiencing.)
Asking a person to tell you if they are experiencing dizziness, nausea, internal pain, cramping, feelings of extreme heat or cold, are all ways to understand the symptoms the patient is experiencing.
Your questions can help. If the person is rubbing a particular area, ask if they can describe the pain – stabbing, dull or in a specific area? If a part of their body looks swollen and injured ask how severe is the pain, can they touch it, what sort of pain is it?
If someone looks pale and unwell you can ask for more details on exactly how they feel. When did the feelings start? How did they feel before? Have they done anything they think might be causing these feelings?
So, there is a difference between signs and symptoms. Signs are things we observe ourselves. Symptoms are what the patient is experiencing and can report to us. Together they can make up a clear picture of what is going on for the person.
As a first aider it’s important to gather as much information as possible and note or record it so that when more professional help, like an ambulance, nurse or doctor, arrives you can quickly debrief them.
Always remember as well, to report how a patient’s signs or symptoms have changed over time as this too can be critical.