What are the Differences Between Vital Signs and Side Effects?

Vital signs and side effects are different yet inseparable topics. Doctors rely on both to guide medical decision-making. LPNs play a critical role in healthcare by monitoring vital signs and side effects, both are pieces of clinical puzzles.

What Are the Main Vital Signs? 

Vital signs are baseline clinical measurements that reflect a patient’s overall physical health.

The primary vital signs include:


Measured in Fahrenheit (°F) or Celsius (°C), temperature readings indicate how much heat the body is producing. A reflection of metabolism, abnormally high or low readings suggest physical changes that could indicate illness. The average adult temperature is 98.6 °F or 37 °C.

Heart Rate

Heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times the heart beats per minute. Healthy readings average 60-100 BPM. LPNs are also trained to notice pulse characteristics, including strength and regularity.

Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force blood exerts against artery walls. Measured as systolic over diastolic pressure, it’s a reflection of cardiac, respiratory, and renal health. Readings in the 120/80 range are the norm.

Respiratory Rate

The respiratory rate is the number of breaths someone takes per minute, healthy adults average 12-16 easy respirations.

Why Do Medical Assistants and LPNs Take Vital Signs? 

Taking vital signs is critical for several key reasons:

Patient Assessment

Abnormal vital signs suggest changes in a patient’s health status. Readings point to specific conditions, helping doctors diagnose illness. An elevated temperature, for example, points to an infection.

Baseline Information

Normal vital sign readings vary based on factors from age to physical conditioning. Regular measurements can reveal early signs of medical conditions, such as hypertension and heart disease, allowing for earlier intervention.

Medication Management

Monitoring vital signs helps doctors assess the effects of treatments. If hypertension doesn’t respond to a certain drug, for example, the patient may need a higher dose or a different medication.

Safety Precautions 

Medical procedures can cause stress on the body. Anesthesia, for example, suppresses the respiratory rate. Assessing vital signs before surgery reassures doctors that patients are stable enough to tolerate the procedure.

Monitoring vital signs is also crucial for detecting drug side effects. Routine checks ensure that patients are getting the best medications in appropriate dosages.

What Are Side Effects? 

Side effects are unintended consequences of medical treatments. Some, such as hair loss after chemotherapy, are expected and manageable. Others, like allergic reactions, may be serious or life-threatening because they affect vital signs.

Common side effects of medications and other treatments include:

Nausea and Vomiting

Many medications, including analgesics, general anesthetics, and antibiotics, can cause nausea and vomiting ranging from mild and transient to severe and sustained. Persistent vomiting can lead to fluid loss resulting in low blood pressure and a rapid heartbeat.


Some drugs, including blood pressure medications and opioid pain relievers, can cause dizziness, lightheartedness, or fainting. Both can cause blood pressure to drop, creating a risk of falls.


Certain medications, such as antihistamines, affect the nervous system, causing temporary drowsiness and fatigue. Confusion is a common side effect of over-the-counter allergy medications in patients over 60 years of age.

Changes in Mood

Unpredictable mood changes are possible with medications such as antidepressants. Others, including anesthetics, can cause delirium, especially in the elderly.

Pain or Redness

Swelling, discomfort, redness, and bruising are common at surgical incision sites, resolving slowly as they heal. A fever plus worsening symptoms might indicate an infection.


Some people develop a low-grade fever for 24-48 hours after receiving certain vaccines. The good news among researchers, however, is that this indicates a robust immune response.

Allergic Reactions 

Mild allergic reactions to medications, including vomiting, rashes, and hives, are not uncommon. These side effects, however, can evolve into serious or life-threatening adverse effects, such as anaphylactic shock, if not addressed. Anaphylaxis begins with garden-variety allergy symptoms but quickly progresses to airway constriction, low blood pressure, rapid pulse, and organ failure. It’s a medical emergency.

What Do Side Effects Tell Healthcare Professionals? 

The presence or absence of side effects answers many clinical questions, such as:

Is the Patient Tolerating Treatment? 

Side effects reflect how a patient is responding to a specific treatment. The lack of side effects is promising. Symptoms like vomiting, however, suggest a change in therapy may be necessary. The good news is that there are alternatives within most categories of drugs that may be better tolerated. And as is the case with many chemotherapy agents, side effects can be treated to make them more manageable.

Do Safety Concerns Outweigh the Therapeutic Benefits of Treatment? 

All medical treatments have risks and benefits, but some side effects create significant safety concerns. A senior who feels dizzy after taking blood pressure medication, for example, is at risk for falls.

By monitoring for side effects, doctors can better see a patient’s entire clinical picture, allowing them to determine when the risks of a particular therapy exceed the potential benefits.

Will the Patient Adhere to Treatment Recommendations? 

Side effects can influence a patient’s willingness to adhere to their treatment plan. If a patient experiences intolerable side effects, they may be less likely to continue taking beneficial medications. People with diabetes, for example, may be less compliant with insulin injections because they’re uncomfortable and inconvenient. For these patients, an oral diabetes treatment may improve adherence and outcomes.

What Are the Differences Between Vital Signs and Side Effects? 

Vital signs and side effects differ in these key areas:


Vital signs are measurements. Assessed at regular intervals, they’re an essential part of patient assessment.

Side effects are unintended and serve no therapeutic purpose, but they can provide clues that help doctors refine treatment regimens.


Vital signs are objective measurements, readings aren’t subject to interpretation. Any two patients with blood pressure over 140/90 are considered to have hypertension.

Side effects are observed or reported, but they’re subjective experiences because they impact patients’ lives differently. Persistent vomiting, for example, will affect an underweight cancer patient more than a healthy adult.


Vital signs are measured and recorded routinely.

Side effects, including changes in vital signs, may occur without warning. Even after years of therapy, factors such as illness or weight loss can affect how the body reacts to a drug.

As an LPN, you’ll inquire about side effects related to treatments each time you update a patient’s medical history.

Final Thoughts

Vital signs and side effects are distinct concepts. But together, they create a clinical picture that helps doctors make the best treatment decisions.

Practical Nursing Program

Are you looking for Practical Nursing training classes in Central Florida that prepares you to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN)? Gwinnett Institute in Orlando offers a Practical Nursing diploma program that trains LPN students for positions delivering basic bedside care to patients. The Practical Nursing diploma program provides the didactic and skills training needed to take the NCLEX-PN examination.* 

*While Gwinnett Institute provides test preparation and review assistance to college students, it cannot guarantee any college student will be able to take or pass any type of licensure exam. College students must be mindful throughout their entire training program that licensure is a prerequisite for employment as a nurse and to diligently prepare themselves to meet this important requirement.

Contact us today to learn more about becoming an LPN in Orlando at Gwinnett Institute.