Is the phrase "harmful symptoms" acceptable (does it sound natural) to a native English speaker? If so could you suggest a sentence using it?

  • Have you googled the phrase? Please let us know. – Kris May 20 '19 at 10:12
  • I would certainly have no problem considering an itchy rash to be harmful, in the sense that it is harming my contentment. Whether it's a natural phrase, however, is more a matter of opinion. I wouldn't say it's a common phrase. And it would also depend on the context in which you said it. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica May 20 '19 at 17:32
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    Can you give a sentence in which you think this is OK or not OK? IT is unclear what the problem is. There might be contexts in which it does not sound natural and other contexts where it sounds perfectly natural. – Mitch May 21 '19 at 12:24

The Shorter OED's main definition of symptom, in the medical sense is:

A physical, or mental phenomenon, circumstance, or change of condition, arising from and accompanying a disorder; and constituting evidence of it; a characteristic sign of a particular disease.

So symptoms are like messengers, indications of what is going on. Though the underlying condition may be harmful, a symptom cannot be harmful, or otherwise.

So though one might speak of "worrying", "disquieting" or even "unconcerning" symptoms - the expression "harmful symptom" is illogical and hence not acceptable. Having said that, the term is undoubtedly in widespread lazy use.

  • Have you googled the phrase? Please let us know. – Kris May 20 '19 at 10:11
  • @Kris I am not the kind of person who idly reaches for Google to resolve matters of this kind. It does not begin to compare with the authority of the OED. When I did look at Google, following your comment, it confirmed my belief that whilst "harmful symptom" is in lackadaisical use, it is basically nonsense. – WS2 May 20 '19 at 13:19
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    A symptom can be harmful in that it can itself cause some further harm. For example, persistent cough may be a symptom of a respiratory infection, and it can also prevent one from sleeping. Insofar as a lack of sleeping constitutes harm, it can then be said that coughing is a harmful symptom. It is, however, true that a symptom is never harmful as such, and that the phrase harmful symptom is often used carelessly when the accurate formulation would be 'a symptom of a harmful condition'. – jsw29 May 20 '19 at 15:36
  • @jsw29 I agree. – WS2 May 20 '19 at 17:59
  • I believe that osteopenia is a possible symptom of myeloma, and, believe me, it can be harmful in its own wrong. – Edwin Ashworth May 21 '19 at 11:19

Let's say I have a mild rash. It itches. That is a symptom. But if it itches so much that I scratch it, now I'm causing damage to the skin. Harmful symptom.

Let's say someone has OCD and suffers from intrusive thoughts. Not only is that unpleasant, but this symptom interferes with sleep, so now on top of everything else, the individual is developing a sleep disorder. The more short on sleep this person is, the harder it is to fall and stay asleep. The individual is now in a downward spiral. Here, to, the symptom is harmful.

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    But in its capacity as a "symptom", the itch is not harmful. However a "symptom" can also be harmful. Though that is incidental to its role as a symptom. Most people when they use the term "harmful symptom" effectively mean "a symptom of a harmful condition". – WS2 May 21 '19 at 8:48
  • @WS2 - But you agreed with jsw29, who expressed the same idea that I did. – aparente001 May 22 '19 at 3:51

The term "harmful symptom" is not often used in medicine; the Google search for site:gov "harmful symptom" gives only 5 results, and site:gov "harmful symptoms" 595 results, but in most cases, it is used inappropriately: sometimes instead of a side effect (of drugs), complication, symptom of a severe disease or just as a severe symptom.

Harmful = of a kind likely to be damaging (Merriam-Webster).

A symptom is any subjective evidence of disease (MedTerms), something what a patient feels (pain...) or observes (rash...); it is a "passive" thing that can't really "do" something, like cause harm or damage.

Now, someone could say that cough is a harmful symptom when it prevents someone from sleep; this can be disturbing but not necessary harmful (damaging). You can just say that cough results in lack of sleep.

Loud music is annoying when it prevents someone from sleep and harmful when it results in hearing impairment.

Harm is a hard word.

  • Why a downvote? – Jan May 21 '19 at 15:22

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