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How common are symptoms? Evidence from a New Zealand national telephone survey
  1. Keith J Petrie1,
  2. Kate Faasse1,
  3. Fiona Crichton1,
  4. Andrew Grey2
  1. 1Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
  2. 2Department of Medicine, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Professor Keith J Petrie; kj.petrie{at}


Objective To assess the frequency of symptoms in a general population sample over the previous week and the associations between symptom reporting and demographic factors, medical visits and medication use.

Design A representative general population sample (n=1000) was recruited using random digit dialling. Participants were asked whether they had experienced any of a list of 46 symptoms in the previous 7 days and if so, whether the symptom was mild, moderate or severe. Demographic data and information on medical visits and medication use were also collected.

Results Symptom reporting was very common. The median number of symptoms reported by participants in the previous week was 5 with only 10.6% of participants reporting no symptoms. The five most common symptoms in the previous 7 days were: back pain (38%), fatigue (36%), headache (35%), runny or stuffy nose (34%) and joint pain (34%). The five symptoms rated highest in terms of severity were sexual difficulties, vomiting, tremor, suicidal thoughts and sleep problems. Symptom reporting was significantly positively associated with medical visits in the previous year and current medication taking. Women reported a significantly greater number of symptoms. We found no significant association between age or household size and symptom reporting.

Conclusions This population-based study found that symptoms are more commonly experienced in the general population than previously estimated and are strongly associated with healthcare visits. Appreciation of the high prevalence of symptoms may help normalise the experience of symptom reports among the general population.

  • Public Health
  • General Medicine (see Internal Medicine)
  • Epidemiology

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