7 Nursing Symbols in Healthcare and Surprising Meanings

Last Updated on May 13, 2024

an image of a dark blue caduceus symbol and red cross, two common nursing symbols in healthcare, on dark blue background

Much like nursing jobs, nursing symbols often conjure a lot of questions. What’s with the lamp? Where did the Red Cross come from? Sometimes a patient will even ask: “Hey, what does that snake wrapped around the pole mean?” Well, after reading this guide, you’ll have the answers! 

By understanding nursing symbols, you gain a sharp image of the nurse’s role, mission, and historical roots. So, let’s explore seven popular symbols in nursing and healthcare.

Seven Important Nursing Symbols and Their History 

Among many healthcare logos, icons, and symbols, the nursing profession recognizes a few as the most significant. In fact, many nursing symbols transcend borders, cultures, and languages, delivering a universal message of health and healing around the world. 

Common nursing symbols include the Red Cross, Rod of Asclepius, Star of Life, Caduceus, and more.

Symbols in nursing and healthcare represent a sort of language within the medical community. Some medical symbols are for branding, others represent a warning – but they all have a story. So, let’s explore each in more detail! 

The Red Cross: A Symbol Tied to Wartime Nurses  

The Red Cross might be the most recognizable symbol within medicine. The symbol originated from the Geneva Convention, in 1864. The symbol of the red cross against a white background reflects the Swiss flag (which has a white cross with a red background).  

The Red Cross serves as a universal sign of neutrality. This means any combatants who fire upon those bearing the emblem of the Red Cross are breaking international law.  

Bonus: Some people use the Red Crescent and the Red Crystal synonymously with the Red Cross.  

The Caduceus: The Medical Symbol Mistake 

The Caduceus is still a common healthcare symbol; however, most agree that the adoption of this mythological emblem as a medical symbol was a mistake. The symbol of the Caduceus consists of a scepter entwined with two serpents, often with wings on the top.  

Hermes wields the staff in Greek mythology, with the symbol representing trade and commerce. So how did it become popular in medicine? 

The story is that an assistant surgeon in the Army Medical Corps mistook the Caduceus for the “Rod of Asclepius” (the true symbol of medicine) in the early 1900s. Due to this mistake, they placed the Caduceus on their uniforms, and it has stuck ever since.  

The Rod of Asclepius: The True Medical Symbol  

The Rod of Asclepius is the true nursing symbol of healing and features on the logo of the World Health Organization. Asclepius, son of Apollo in Greek mythology, is the one who held the Rod of Asclepius. The symbol itself depicts a serpent coiled around a staff (so it’s not that surprising it is confused with the Caduceus!) 

There are various theories about the origin of the Rod of Asclepius. Some theories include the ancient biblical story of Moses, where he erects the staff and the serpent, healing anyone who looks upon it.  

Insight: What’s with all the snakes? Well, in ancient times snakes represented vitality, long life, and regeneration (think about a snake shedding its old skin).  

Years ago, many nurses wore a cap. The nurses’ cap served several purposes, to help hold back the hair and to distinguish the nurse within the profession. Think of a military unit wearing a specific uniform so they are easy to recognize.  

As you’re probably aware, the nurses’ cap isn’t used in practice today. Modern nurses tend to prefer the comfort and cleanliness of scrubs. However, the nurses’ cap is so iconic that it still features as a symbol on many medically branded products.  

Bonus – the Syringe: Similar to the nurses’ cap, the image of a needle on a syringe – prepared to administer a healing antidote – has also become a common symbol in medicine.  

The Lamp: A Symbol tied to Florence Nightingale  

The lamp, also known as the Lamp of Life (or Knowledge) has roots as a symbol of life in ancient Egyptian culture. However, Florence Nightingale, the “lady with the lamp,” is the source of the lamp as a nursing symbol.  

Florence Nightingale was known to carry a lamp when she checked on her patients in the dark. These days, modern electricity takes the place of the oil lamp, but the symbol still speaks to the light that nurses bring their patients.

The Biohazard Symbol: Nursing Symbols for Safety  

The biohazard symbol is specific to the day-to-day practice of nursing. The biohazard symbol has three circles surrounding a center circle. This unique and memorable symbol was designed by Dow Chemical with the purpose of warning people of infectious bodily fluids and other biological dangers.  

As you may have seen, this symbol is often located on a red “sharps” container where nurses dispose of dirty needles. You might also see this symbol on medical waste baskets, or on the side of red biohazard bags. 

Bonus – the Hourglass Symbol: This emblem consists of a small hourglass that draws attention to the expiration date on packaged medical equipment.  

The Star of Life: A Symbol for Emergency Services  

The Star of Life began in Emergency Medical Services (EMS), but you will find it in many places besides the ambulance. As it happens, the six-sided star features the Rod of Asclepius in the center and represents the EMS mission: Detection, Reporting, Response, On-scene Care, Care in Transit, and Transfer to Definitive Care.  

These days, many nurses work in EMS, whether on an ambulance, a helicopter, or a special health unit – where the Star of Life is commonly featured. Outside of those settings, you will also find the Star of Life on a medical bracelet or necklace, alerting people to a person’s pre-existing medical condition (such as diabetes).  

Nursing Symbols Represent a Rich Profession and Exciting Career 

Just as professional sports have team logos, the nursing profession has symbols that represent the exciting spirit and resolve of nurses throughout history. And if you’re looking for a career that brings you to exciting places, search a variety of local, travel, and per diem nursing jobs around the United States! 

Symbols can inspire, instruct, and guide. Do you need some careful guidance in finding a nursing job that serves you while you serve others? Quick Apply below to connect with a recruiter and let them bring quality nursing jobs to you!