Jennifer Walter
Jennifer Walter
Portrait of Lauren A Koenig
Lauren A Koenig, PhD

Every evening, I add a number, 0 to 5, to the chart posted on the front of my refrigerator. Today is a four. A good day. Five is a great one, three is fine. A two means my day was plagued by excessive grumpiness and/or sleepiness; I probably took a nap and was generally unproductive at work. A one is bad, I probably called out sick. A zero is a very, very bad day.

Why am I doing this? I’ve just started a new medication, and I’m tracking my symptoms to see how they change over time. My target: depression. But I’ve used this type of symptom tracker many times before to keep an eye on symptoms I was working to resolve, or potential side effects from new medications I wanted to monitor.

In the past I’ve used a symptom log to track my energy levels, my stress, and my stomach aches. And to see what affects them, I’ve tracked specifics about my diet, how much water I’m drinking, how much I’m exercising, how much alcohol I’m consuming — any factors that I thought might also have an effect on the symptom I’m focused on.  I have a friend who charts out all her migraines the same way, looking for clues for what triggers them.

I’m a scientist by training, and I’m thankful that this allows me to think like a scientist to solve problems in my day-to-day life. But these methods aren’t limited to those of us with a scientific background. Anyone can learn how to track their symptoms in a methodical way, and when done correctly, this practice can help you better understand your body and advocate for the medical care you deserve.

How to track symptoms and side effects

When you start a new medication, like ,  you might experience new side effects that change or improve over time. Tracking your symptoms can help you determine if your new is a good fit for your body, or if you should consider switching to a different one.

If you use a symptom log to collect data on things like your cycle, mood, and physical symptoms, you’ll also position yourself to be a powerful self-advocate in the doctor’s office.

Many of us have had the experience where we bring up a bothersome symptom and the doctor asks, “when did that symptom start?” or “has it gotten worse over time?” Our memories aren’t always the most accurate, so having a written record can help you pinpoint the exact answer to those questions.

Remember, you are the expert on your own body. And with the right tools, you can leverage your expertise to find patterns in your symptoms and advocate for better care.

Using the scientific method – on yourself

The scientific method is a process of observing, testing, and drawing conclusions. And it’s a handy framework for understanding problems and testing solutions in your own life. When you start a new medication, , diet, or routine, using the scientific method to track the change and its effects is much more informative than just winging it.

Also, if you find it hard to stick to new routines, writing down your daily efforts can help you see how much you’re actually doing the thing you set out to do. Are you accidentally skipping doses of a new medication or eating too much of the food you are trying to cut out? Noticing these patterns shouldn’t be a source of shame, but rather a helpful observation to understand if you’re actually sticking to your experiment.

Think of it as collecting evidence, like lawyers do for court cases. Having video evidence of a perpetrator committing a crime is much more reliable than witness testimony when deciding if someone is guilty. In the same way, it’s more trustworthy for you — and your doctor — to have a written log of your experiences as they happened, rather than trying to recall them from memory.

Easy daily symptom tracking at home

To collect accurate evidence in your symptom log, there are a few factors you’ll want to keep in mind:

  • The control. To test if your new medication or habit is having an effect, you need to collect some baseline data before you start. In a scientific experiment, a researcher will have what’s called a “control” group for comparison, like a group of test subjects that receive a treatment. But you only have one you to experiment on, so you’ll need to collect your control data before you start. Record your symptoms for a few days before starting something new so that you can compare how you feel before and after the change.
  • Independent variables. If you want to be able to understand a clear cause and effect, only change one thing at a time, and stick with it for a few weeks. Additional health changes like removing gluten from your diet, quitting smoking, or starting an additional medication are variables that will contaminate your self-test results.
  • Dependent variables. Once you introduce the independent variable, like your new , it’s time to record possible side effects (both good and bad!). Each day at the same time, answer yes/no questions like “did I have a headache today?” or you can make up a ranking system, like I did for my mood, above. Don’t leave this part open-ended! Journal about your experience separately if you’d like, but here we need cold, hard data.
  • Confounding variables. Our bodies are complicated, and things can happen that might interfere with your results. Perhaps your stress levels are heightened due to work or school, or you always get a headache at a certain point in your cycle. Make a note of any of these confounding variables as they occur, and consider tracking them too if they occur regularly. You can simply make a note next to your daily numerical ranking or integrated daily journaling so you can reference stretches of decline or improvement in how you’re feeling.

Every symptom tracker is going to look a little different depending on your needs. Here’s how to get started:

How to make a symptom tracker

To select a way to track your symptoms, try to find something that will easily fit into your daily life. You can use a journal, a hand-drawn chart taped to your fridge, a digital spreadsheet, a specialized app, or even the notes app on your phone. Just make sure your symptom log is something you can easily access and will be able to revisit every day.

Mood tracker journal

The key to tracking your symptoms is consistency.  Make the process as simple and routine as possible, so set an alarm or think about your answer each day while you’re cooking dinner. Find ways to make it fun – such as color-coding your journal or rewarding yourself with a small treat after finishing the task each day.

Finally, don’t overdo it. You could track every aspect of your health and every aspect of how you feel — but then you might need a degree in statistics to interpret the results. Keep it simple, honing in on one thing you’re changing and as few symptoms as possible.

Interpreting your results

Once you’ve tracked your symptoms for at least a few weeks, you can start looking for patterns in the data – just like scientists do when they complete an experiment.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Have my symptoms gradually gotten better or worse over time?
  • Were there sudden changes in my symptoms at any point?
  • What happened in the days directly before and after any notable shifts took place?

These questions are especially important to answer when you’re starting a new medication like . If your symptoms suddenly get worse, it might indicate that you need to try a different treatment method. If your overall health is improving, be sure to keep a written record before making additional health changes. By regularly recording symptoms you may even stumble upon additional health-lifestyle correlations.

Keep in mind, though, that there are some cases where you should see your doctor as soon as possible rather than waiting for a routine check-up.

When to see your doctor

In general, most medications have the potential to cause side effects – some more benign than others. When you start new , for example, you might see changes to your menstrual cycle, mood, , or experience physical sensations that you didn’t have before.

More often than not, common symptoms of resolve for most people after three to six months, depending on the method. If your symptoms are tolerable, it’s best to track what you’re experiencing for a while before worrying that something is seriously wrong.

However, there are times when it’s necessary to seek medical treatment. Extreme pain after an IUD insertion, for example, can be an indicator that the device was inserted incorrectly. And excessive, nonstop bleeding can be a sign that you have an underlying condition, like or cancer, that needs prompt attention.


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And your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Some patients report a change in mood after starting . If you feel like your anxiety or depression is worsening or you’re experience suicidal thoughts, don’t wait to get help. You can always call your doctor’s office to ask for guidance if you’re unsure about scheduling a visit.

When you do make it back to the doctor’s office for a checkup, you might be wondering how to share your symptom tracking results. Here are some pointers:

How to share your results with your doctor

Your doctor likely won’t have time to go through your entire tracking journey with you on the spot. So before you leave for your appointment, make some brief notes about what you want to share with them, sticking to the highlights. What did you learn from the process? Are there any symptoms that you want the doctor’s opinion on? Write the notes down, it can be helpful to have a written reference to guide you through the conversation.

Getting specific helps you advocate for yourself in medical settings. Letting your doctor know your concerns can be a catalyst for getting the care you deserve. And if you’ve brought data and your doctor still doesn’t seem to be listening to you? It might be time to find a new doctor.


Learn how to advocate for yourself at the doctor and download our checklist so you’re prepared for your next visit!