red flag

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red flag2016-12-14T15:08:01+00:00

red flag

A popular term for an obvious indicator of a problem which is defined by context.


An indicator–e.g., an asterisk–that is usually printed in red and generated in the lab, when an analyte’s value falls out of range–i.e., above or below the lab’s predetermined values for normal


A sentinel finding in a child’s development–e.g., missing a critical milestone, which may suggest the presence of an extensive disease process warranting investigation

red flag image from New Medical Terms

red flag for fire alert


(1) A solid red flag flown at public access beaches, which warns of hazardous conditions such a heavy surf and rip tides. Entry of water is expressly forbidden. 

(2) A red and yellow flag (image, left) indicating a forecast warning issued by the US National Weather Service, which informs regional firefighting and land management agencies that conditions are ideal for wildland fire ignition and propagation.


An article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal which, when published, reaches startling conclusions that are likely to evoke wide interest and therefore appear in the lay news media–e.g., Washington Post, NY Times, and others, which may be reported less for their scientific value than for their sensationalist impact.

Red flags have included articles on the significance of vitamin C and the common cold PNAS 1971; 68:2678, pancreatic cancer due to coffee consumption NEJM 1981; 304:603, and validation of the homeopathic principle Nature 1988; 333:816, and linking of MMR vaccination to autism Lancet 1998; 351:905. While a major component of journalistic excellence is newsworthiness, editors of legitimate journals dislike red flag papers, as erroneous conclusions reached by the paper’s author(s) may compromise the journal’s credibility.


A popular term for any subtle sign–e.g.,  physical findings and behavioural patterns–that may indicate physical abuse of a vulnerable person.

Red flags include failure to keep physician appointments, multiple injuries at different sites, a “bathing suit” pattern of injuries, nonspecific complaints including choking sensations, back, chest, pelvic and stomach pains, headaches, and insomnia, poorly controlled medical conditions–e.g., diabetes and hypertension, as the abuser may not allow the victim to take medications, explanation for the injuries does not fit the injuries, behavioural indicators including shyness, elusiveness, anxiety, embarrassed, frightened, and passive behaviour, and a history of “accidents”.    

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