What does asymptomatic mean?

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You may have heard your healthcare provider describe the condition as asymptomatic . This term literally means that there are no symptoms. For most diseases, there is an asymptomatic phase in which the disease is present but causes no symptoms.

The point here is that while it may feel good, your body may not. And since it is unlikely that you will change your behavior when you feel good, if what you have is passed on , it is likely that you are passing it on to others.

Screening tests are used to detect a variety of conditions in asymptomatic patients so they can be monitored or treated early. Unfortunately, many do not seek such an evaluation when they are asymptomatic because they do not know the reason.

Laura Porter / Get Medication Information

Asymptomatic diseases

An asymptomatic infection is an infection in which a bacteria , virus , fungus, or parasite has entered the body but has not yet caused any symptoms (such as fever or cough).

Your body can fight the invader and you may never know it was there. Or you may develop symptoms of illness after the asymptomatic phase. Depending on the pathogen, you can pass the germs to other people, even if you don't have symptoms.

Cancer that develops can be asymptomatic for a long time, grow and spread until it affects body functions and causes symptoms. Other conditions that may be asymptomatic for at least part of its course include high blood pressure (hypertension) and diabetes .

If you develop a disease or condition and have symptoms, you may lose them during recovery or remission.

Some diseases go through repeated cycles of asymptomatic disease and then symptoms return.

Detection

Depending on the problem, detection of asymptomatic disease can be done using various testing methods, such as laboratory tests or imaging.

This can be done due to knowledge of risk factors or exposure, but some asymptomatic diseases are overlooked when none of them are relevant to the patient. They just don't know that there is a reason to check it out.

Most cancer screening tests are designed to find cancer when it is asymptomatic. Medical tests like blood pressure and blood glucose levels can reveal problems like hypertension and diabetes before you have symptoms.

Asymptomatic detection can also signify a subclinical infection. For example, people without symptoms who test positive for strep throat , genital herpes , HIV , or hepatitis. Knowing an asymptomatic infection can help reduce the spread of the disease to other people.

Treating a disease that does not yet show any symptoms can change your health in the long run or even survive. For example, controlling your hypertension or diabetes can extend your life for years. Removing the polyps found during the colonoscopy test can prevent the development of colon cancer.

Asymptomatic results

An asymptomatic condition can refer to a variety of different situations. It is often difficult to know if an asymptomatic condition will progress.

Finding an asymptomatic condition can be an early sign that, if taken into account, can improve your quality of life or long-term survival. An example of this would be the early detection of lung cancer through computed tomography (CT) screening .

On the other hand, asymptomatic detection may be nothing, meaning that early detection will not improve quality of life or increase survival. In this case, additional medical tests and interventions may be performed unnecessarily.

In addition to the emotional distress it can cause, the exam itself can present risks (for example, surgical risk due to a biopsy). And overdiagnosis can lead to overtreatment and related side effects.

The overdiagnosis controversy

There is considerable controversy over the use of screening tests, including those used to detect cancer. Colon cancer screening and lung cancer screening clearly save lives.

But it is not yet clear whether prostate screening or even breast cancer play a role in improving survival (comparing the benefits for some with the risks for others).

Of course, these screening tests increase the diagnosis of cancer, but they can lead to overdiagnosis. This is the root of the controversy over the detection of prostate specific antigen (PSA) : for some, it can lead to unnecessary evaluations and harmful treatments, while for others it can lead to longer survival .

Next steps

There are situations in which the treatment of an asymptomatic disease clearly makes a difference. Therefore, any asymptomatic outcome should be carefully considered.

When talking to your doctor about how to interpret an asymptomatic finding and what (and if what) to do with this new information, ask lots of questions.

Questions to ask your healthcare provider

  • What are the chances that I will develop a disease for which I currently have no symptoms? How can you change this with treatment?
  • What can the treatment involve? What are the pros and cons?
  • What are the chances that nothing will happen if nothing is done with detection? (Sometimes it helps to look at the statistics.)
  • Are there any concerns that this condition is being overdiagnosed?
  • What would you do if you were me?

Deciding whether to act must consider not only the outcome, but also its medical implications, available treatments, your general health, and other factors.

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