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For example: water treatment tablets. If the water is contaminated and the tablets don't work, the you will get sick. If the water is contaminated and they work correctly, you will feel fine. However, if the water is not contaminated, you will also feel fine. So, if take them and don't get sick, you don't know if it was because of the medication or if the water was actually not contaminated.

Another example would be Cold-fX.

I was looking at the term "placebo", but it clearly doesn't make sense in this context.

  • Placebo would make sense in the context of Cold-fX, but it doesn't in the water example. In this case, the efficacy of the water tablet isn't in doubt. In other words, what you are looking for a is a word describing your lack of knowledge of the condition of the water before hand. Very good question. – Nick2253 Nov 11 '14 at 0:36
  • This situation resembles an experimental set-up in which there is no control condition to validate the effects of the experimental variable – Erik Kowal Nov 11 '14 at 15:57
  • Your question reminds me of Kalocin. Michael Crichton used Kalocin in Andromeda Strain as a fictional universal antibiotic, which is effective against every known virus, bacterium, fungus, parasite, and cancer, but it comes with a hazardous consequence. – Damkerng T. Nov 11 '14 at 15:59
  • preventive/prophylactic? (that's not the same but it has similar implications). 'non-specific'? Symptoms are often called non-specific which fit a lot of things both bad and not so bad (eg headache, you might just have a headache because of every day stress). So a non-specific remedy might fit 'good for you whether you have the problem or not'. @medica, does that sound plausible? – Mitch Nov 11 '14 at 16:12
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Perhaps what you're looking for is broad-spectrum antibiotic. This is an antibiotic that acts against many different bacteria, so it might be used as a treatment before medical personnel have been able to diagnose the specific illness. For instance, emergency medical technicians might use this, because of the need for immediate treatment and because they don't have complex diagnostic equipment.

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The term intervention has a medical meaning that might fit. In FreeDictionary.com's Medical Dictionary, the intervention entry has these definitions:

Any measure whose purpose is to improve health or alter the course of disease.

An act performed to prevent harm to a patient or to improve the mental, emotional, or physical function of a patient. A physiologic process may be monitored or enhanced, or a pathologic process may be arrested or controlled.

Anything meant to change the course of events for a person: surgery, a drug, a test, a treatment, counseling, providing informational pamphlets.

Public health: An act or procedure capable of reducing injury or improving health.

An action or ministration that produces an effect or is intended to alter the course of a pathologic process.

In your example, adding water treatment tablets to water is an intervention. The assumption is that the water is tainted. The tablets are used to intervene, to prevent a possible illness if the water does turn out to be tainted. The purpose of the intervention is to alter or even prevent a disease.

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I'm pretty sure you're looking for the word "preventative". You treat the water in the hopes that the treatment will prevent the water from making you ill, but it's still possible that drinking the water would not make you ill even without the treatments.

Your question about Cold-fX, though, doesn't carry the same meaning. You take Cold-fX after you get a cold. It's impossible to tell if the Cold-fX actually helps with your recovery. We wouldn't explain that by talking about it as a property of the medicine itself. We'd describe it by talking about our efforts to determine whether Cold-fX helps with our recovery, and those efforts are inconclusive (and the claim that Cold-fX does help is, at best, dubious, meaning there's reason not to trust it).

If a person does believe that Cold-fX is helping with her cold but in reality it isn't at all, that would make Cold-fX a placebo. You say placebo isn't exactly the word you want, but I think it is. If you decide to take Cold-fX for your cold, for example, you'd naturally consider it medicine. You're probably taking it because you're convinced it will help, right? Someone who knows it's not really helping you would call it a placebo, and that's probably the very same word you yourself would use if you learned after the fact that Cold-fX didn't help your cold at all.

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EDIT The title of the question has been changed. The way it is phrased now makes me stop to think and add a new answer: as a practising physician for over 30 years, I can say that if a doctor prescribes a medicine it is because he expects it to be effective. I wouldn't prescribe a medicine which I think will have no effect and, consequently, if the patient were cured I would wonder whether it was just a coincidence. If I prescribed a drug and there was a beneficial effect, there is no reason why I should think the medicine was ineffective. In addition, if the patient has no problem that requires a medication, and I knew it, I wouldn't prescribe anything at all. In a nutshell: "If a doctor prescribes a certain drug and the patient gets well, he will ascribe it to his prescription."

Now you have my former answer:

This answer refers to your top question: "term for medication used when the cause of symptoms is uncertain."

When you can't make a diagnosis, you treat the symptoms and try to offer the patient some relief.

You're looking for

  • symptomatic medication - Any medicine you give a patient in order to relieve his symptoms (pain, fever, etc). This won't cure any disease but will make the patient feel better. It's what doctors prescribe when you have a cold, a common headache, etc. When you don't have a diagnosis and the patient has uncomfortable symptoms, you "treat" the symptoms.
  • symptomatic treatment - This is the term for the treatment given to make the patient feel better (with analgesics, for instance) even though it's not specific for curing the patient. It may be given alone when you don't have a diagnosis, or along with the specific treatment (antibiotics, for instance) when you do know what the patient has.
  • paliative care - This includes medications and all the supportive measures for those patients who have an incurable disease, usually in a terminal state.
  • Your answer would be improved if your descriptions of symptomatic medication and symptomatic treatment made it more obvious what the essential difference between them (if there is any) consists of. – Erik Kowal Nov 11 '14 at 2:08
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    "So, if take them and don't get sick, you don't know if it was because of the medication or if the water was actually not contaminated." Your answer doesn't address the question in the body of the OP's question, just his misphrased title. – anongoodnurse Nov 11 '14 at 5:19
  • @medica It would be great if you could help to improve the question title. I had trouble finding the phrasing for it! – Ryan Kohn Nov 11 '14 at 14:33
  • @medica I'm afraid I can't. If I change the title to what I think it should be like, I may be accused of trying to fit the title to the answer I have already given. The whole text needs editing, though. – Centaurus Nov 11 '14 at 14:47
  • @medica My answer addresses the title of the question, as I have posted. Can you understand what the body of the question is asking for? – Centaurus Nov 11 '14 at 14:53

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