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What is the difference between a cause and a symptom of a disease?

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Quick Answer

A symptom is an indication that a person has a disease or ailment, whereas a cause is the set of circumstances that led to the development of that condition, notes Mayo Clinic. For example, trouble walking is a symptom of a stroke, while a blocked artery may be the cause.

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A person suffering from a stroke may report feeling an intense headache, explains Mayo Clinic. However, although the headache has a direct relation to the stroke, it is not responsible for causing the stroke to occur. Thus, the headache is a symptom. Meanwhile, a blockage or reduction of blood flow to the brain is the general cause of the stroke. More specifically, this disruption in blood flow is due to a leak or burst in a blood vessel if the person has had a hemorrhagic stroke or a blockage in an artery in the case of an ischemic stroke.

Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of many different conditions, notes Mayo Clinic. Examples include migraines, morning sickness, depression, Crohn's disease and food poisoning. Although throwing up after a meal is a potential indicator that a person has food poisoning, the vomiting itself is not the factor that caused the person to develop food poisoning. The vomiting is the symptom, while the contaminated food is the cause.

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