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What Are Constitutional Symptoms?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The term "constitutional symptoms" refers to the manifestation of an illness that occurs because the illness affects the whole body. They tend to be non-specific to particular diseases, and are not as useful in diagnosis as non-constitutional symptoms. Examples of clearly identifiable medical issues that fall into this group include fever, headache and sweating. More vague issues like weakness, sleepiness or weight loss are also part of the group. Constitutional symptoms can occur individually or together, depending on the specific medical condition affecting the person.

As the body is one organism, the effects of a particular disease on one area do not necessarily only affect a single area. The immune system can produce effects across the entire body, as can problems with energy metabolism, or adverse effects on the brain or other organs. Therefore, a problem in one area, such as thyroid disease, can produce these symptoms, as well as localized symptoms. Disease such as infections, which affect the majority of the body, can also produce symptoms that affect the whole body.

Fever is a common symptom of illness, and is called constitutional because it affects the entire body through the immune system producing a high temperature. Unusual sweating is another example, and can occur alone or in conjunction with fever. A sensation of chills or uncontrollable shaking are also general symptoms. Tingling or unusual skin sensitivity is another symptom that falls into this category, and headache is usually included in the definition, as it can occur for a wide variety of reasons, from eye problems to stress.

Weight loss is a vague indicator of disease, although severe weight loss is an obvious focus for serious disease diagnosis. This symptom can occur for a variety of reasons. The illness may affect the person's appetite, or the disease may cause malabsorption of nutrients from a normal intake of food. Vomiting or diarrhea as a result of the disease can also be a cause of weight loss.

Weakness is a general symptom that can signal the presence of a variety of diseases, from influenza to heart conditions. Abnormal drowsiness, yawning or lethargy can also indicate the presence of underlying illness. When the lungs or the heart are affected by disease, the person may also display an inability to breathe normally, or feel faint when sitting up.

The severity of these symptoms generally indicate the types of treatment that the person needs. Serious problems like weakness or breathlessness require immediate attention, whereas an adult with a slight fever may only require a doctor's or pharmacist's advice. Treatment options for constitutional symptoms depend on the individual patient, but generally focus on treating the underlying cause to remove or alleviate the constitutional problems.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1005564 — On Sep 24, 2021

@SARAHGEN, @BURCINC, and anyone else who reads these comments. Please note, I'm not going to return to this website, so any response to me will go unanswered. I've posted this to try to educate the general public as both those commenters before me have misconstrued understandings of clinical processes, and I do not want people to feel falsely validated.

I am a doctor, and the reason we ask about constitutional symptoms is to ascertain the severity of these symptoms. Further, the presence or absence of these constitutional symptoms help us to make a diagnosis when a clinical presentation is quite similar

For example, the difference between a viral and bacterial upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is that a viral URTI will have more constitutional symptoms like a headache or muscle aches, whereas a bacterial infection will usually have more localized symptoms

Just another thing: any doctor worth listening to will tell you that most diagnoses are made based on the history and the physical examination alone. Tests and investigations are there more to rule in, or rule out diagnoses of concern. Jumping straight to tests and investigations without a thorough history and examination is not beneficial to the patient, and could potentially cause patients more harm. Plus, unnecessary investigations are a burden to the healthcare system.

I've written this response because patients demanding or expecting me to order unnecessary investigations are one of my pet peeves. I live in a country that fortunately has universal healthcare, and unnecessary tests divert health dollars away from patients who actually need it! Thanks for reading until the end!

By burcinc — On Aug 17, 2014

@SarahGen-- Infections usually cause these types of constitutional symptoms. I'm not a doctor but I think that infections are easy to diagnose. Like you said, it just takes a simple test or two.

What's most difficult to diagnose is an immune system disorder that causes general but chronic constitutional symptoms like fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia causes fatigue and pain and it's difficult to diagnose.

By SarahGen — On Aug 16, 2014

It's so funny that when we go to the doctor feeling ill, he or she will ask if we have a fever, headache, fatigue, coughing etc. But actually, these symptoms don't really help much with diagnosis because so many different things can cause them. Without diagnostic testing like a blood test or a test swab, it's not possible to know what's going on.

By bear78 — On Aug 16, 2014

It's so true that even if a problem is in one part of the body, the whole body will be affected. Our body is a system and everything is connected. So regardless of where the cause of the problem or the disease is, it's impossible for other organs to not get affected.

I suffered from thyroid disease for some time where I had hypothyroidism. My thyroid was not producing enough hormone. This affected so many other things in my body. It made my metabolism slow down which caused weight gain. And the hypothyroidism along with the weight gain encouraged insulin resistance. So it triggered type two diabetes. I also had hair loss, difficult concentrating and I had no energy whatsoever. A ten minute walk was enough to exhaust me and I just wanted to sleep all the time. They were all constitutional symptoms but they made life very difficult for me.

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