How to Keep a Symptom Journal

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Mon Apr 11 2022.

Older man wearing glasses, symptom journal

One of the easiest ways to adapt to life with a chronic illness is by keeping a symptom journal. Tracking your sleep, mood, and diet can help identify triggers and reduce flare-ups.

To help make things a little easier, we’ve drafted a guide on keeping a symptom journal. Below, we cover the items you’ll need, what to document, and how to use the data to improve your health and quality of life.

What is a symptom journal?

A symptom journal is a notebook, piece of paper, or digital application that monitors the side effects you experience daily.

If you have a chronic health problem, like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or inflammatory back pain, your doctor might recommend documenting how you feel. 

Often, diseases change and evolve over time. Keeping a journal can help you understand your body and identify activities, environmental factors, or foods that make your symptoms worse.

What are the benefits of keeping a symptom journal?

Keeping a symptom journal offers a variety of benefits, including:

Control over your treatment plan. A symptom journal empowers you to take control of your health. One study conducted by the American Journal of Managed Care found that individuals who kept a symptom journal experienced improved treatment outcomes whereas patients who felt they had little control were more likely to become depressed.

Healthcare savings. If you have a chronic illness, you’re also more likely to need lab tests and diagnostic imaging. Keeping a symptom journal establishes a history that your doctor can review, reducing the need for unnecessary and/or costly screening procedures.

A better relationship with your doctor. Chronic illnesses require frequent checkups, but those visits may feel rushed. By maintaining a symptom journal and bringing it to each appointment, you don’t have to remember every little thing that happens. Your doctor can study your work and use it to identify patterns. 

How do I start a symptom journal?

To start a symptom journal, you need the following items:

  • A blank notebook

  • Paper (if you don’t want to use a notebook)

  • Pens, pencils, markers (or another writing utensil that you prefer)

  • An EXCEL Spreadsheet or a Word Doc (if you prefer tracking your symptoms digitally)

There are also a variety of apps that allow you to track symptoms from your smartphone or computer, including:

There’s no right or wrong way to track your symptoms. If it helps, try a few different formats. Ideally, stick with something that’s easy to remember and doesn’t feel like a hassle. 

What information should I track in my symptom journal?

The information that you track in your symptom journal depends on several factors, including the condition you’re living with and the severity of your symptoms. Even so, it’s vital to include the following:

The date and time. At the start of each entry, jot down the day of the week, the month of the year, and the time of day. As you gather more data, you might notice that flare-ups occur at certain times or during specific seasons, like when the temperatures drop, for example.

Your body temperature. A change in your body temperature is one of the easiest ways to identify an infection. If you develop a fever, and it lasts for more than a day or two, visit your doctor immediately.

Any medications in your system. The average American takes four prescription drugs, not to mention various over-the-counter medications. Make sure to include the medicines you’re taking in each symptom journal entry. That’s especially true if you’re trying out something new. Documenting the side effects or changes in how you feel emotionally and physically, can help your doctor determine what works and what doesn’t.

Your mood. People with chronic illnesses are also more likely to experience behavioral disorders, like anxiety and depression. You don’t have to elaborate. If it’s difficult for you to express your feelings, try rating them on a scale of 1-5.

The meals and snacks you eat. The meals, snacks, and drinks that you consume influence your mood, energy levels, and ability to focus. Therefore, it’s important to write down everything you eat, even if it’s mostly the same. That’s particularly true if you have diabetes, thyroid disease, or another metabolic disorder heavily influenced by nutrition.

Exercise. Exercise gets your blood pumping, reduces inflammation, and encourages mobility. It also releases feel-good chemicals, called endorphins, that can improve your outlook and mood. Whether you take the dog for a walk or ride your stationary bike for 30 minutes, don’t forget to write it down.

Sleep quality. When you go to bed, keep your symptom journal on the nightstand. That way, if you wake up or experience sleep disturbances, you can track and write them down in real-time.

Unusual symptoms. Don’t forget to include unusual or uncomfortable symptoms that you experience in-between doctor’s appointments. Even if something seems unrelated, write it down. The more information you provide, the easier it is for your medical team to make recommendations.

How can I use the data from my symptom journal?

Doctors and specialists are busy people, so don’t expect them to read through each and every one of your symptom journal entries. It’s up to you to compress and interpret the data for them. To do that, set aside at least an hour before your next doctor’s appointment. 

Review all of your entries during that time and summarize anything that stands out, such as:

  • Pain that’s out of the ordinary

  • Changes in your mood, sleep habits, or appetite

  • Symptoms that might be related to new medication

  • Energy fluctuations

  • Anything else that seems important to note

Try to keep your summary to less than a page and write down any questions that you want your doctor to answer.

Keeping a symptom journal can seem daunting, but by following this guide, you’ll have the art mastered in no time. Good luck!

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.