Symptomatic treatment is any medical therapy of a disease that only affects its symptoms, not its cause, i.e., its etiology. It is usually aimed at reducing the signs and symptoms for the comfort and well-being of the patient, but it also may be useful in reducing organic consequences and sequelae of these signs and symptoms of the disease. In many diseases, even in those whose etiologies are known (e.g., most viral diseases, such as influenza), symptomatic treatment is the only one available so far.
Examples of symptomatic treatments:Analgesics, for pain
Anti-inflammatory agents, for inflammation caused by arthritis
Antitussives, for cough
Antihistaminics, for allergy
Cerebral shunts, to alleviate hydrocephalus
When the etiology for the disease is known, then specific treatment may be instituted, but it is generally associated to symptomatic treatment, as well.
Symptomatic treatment is not always recommended, and in fact it may be outright dangerous, because it may mask the presence of an underlying etiology which will then be forgotten or treated with great delay. Examples:Low-grade fever for 15 days or more sometimes is the only symptom of bacteremia by staphylococcus bacteria. Suppressing it by symptomatic treatment will hide the disease from effective diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics. The consequence may be severe (rheumatic fever, nephritis, endocarditis, etc.)
Chronic headache may be caused simply by a constitutional disposition or be the result of a brain tumor or a brain aneurysm.
Finally, symptomatic treatment is not exempt of adverse effects, and may be a cause of iatrogenic consequences (i.e., ill effects caused by the treatment itself), such as allergic reactions, stomach bleeding, central nervous system effects (nausea, dizziness, etc.).