Treatment may be described as either specific, symptomatic, or expectant.

Specific treatment is that in which a remedy directly attacks the causative factors of the disease. In the diseases for which such specific remedies are known the diagnosis at once determines the remedy, e. g., in diphtheria the remedy is diphtheria antitoxin; in acute articular rheumatism, salicylic acid; in malaria, quinine; in syphilis, salvarsan and mercury. In each of these diseases there is no question as to the remedy, for it is specific.

But for almost all the diseases which a physician is called upon to treat, such as tonsillitis, typhoid fever, cirrhosis of the liver, etc., there is no specific remedy, so that he is forced to content himself with attempts to combat the various harmful symptoms and their effects as they appear, i. e., he employs symptomatic treatment. Thus in typhoid fever, if there is constipation, a drug with a laxative action is given; if diarrhea, a constipating drug; if there is a weak heart, a cardiac stimulant may be administered, and if the heart is in good condition it needs no drug at all. Hence in many cases of typhoid fever no remedy is required for days at a time, for none of the manifestations of the disease are pronounced enough to demand special antagonizing, and we know of no remedy that will cure the disease itself. Again, in such a disease as cirrhosis of the liver, where certain tissues are destroyed and cannot by any known means be restored, treatment is directed, essentially, to combating such symptoms as result from the impairment of the diseased organ, and perhaps, also, to promoting the functional power of such portions of the organ as are still good. These are conditions for symptomatic treatment. In fact, almost all internal treatment is symptomatic treatment, and it is because of this fact that a knowledge of the power of remedies to modify the structure or functions of the various organs of the body is so important to the physician.

Expectant treatment is a term applied to the administration of mild and harmless remedies while the development of symptoms is awaited. For example, if one sees a child with fever but cannot diagnosticate the disease at the first visit, one may prescribe some of the official solution of ammonium acetate, which satisfies the patient and the family, tends to do good, does no harm, and does not interfere with the later diagnosis of the disease. Expectant treatment should not be employed if its necessity can be avoided. A remedy employed in expectant treatment is known as a placebo ("I placate or please"), and in the selection of a placebo it is well to choose one with some fitness to the case in hand, as the spirit of mindererus in fever, so that the tendency will be good even though its power is slight. In neurotic conditions a placebo is often administered for its psychic effect.