57 Health Terms Everyone Accessing Medical Care Should Know

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Confused by doc talk? Brush up on these key health terms so you’ll be ready for your next appointment.

If you’ve ever been a little confused by the health terms your doctor uses or the instructions on a bottle of medication, you’re not alone. Nearly nine out of every 10 adults in the United States struggles to understand and use health terms and other health information.

When you do see your health care provider, don’t be embarrassed if you don’t understand their instructions or one of the health terms used. It’s perfectly OK to speak up. In fact, you should make it clear to your doctor or nurse that you need additional information.

“Be prepared to ask the questions that will matter to you,” says Dr. Catrina O’Leary, president and CEO of Health Literacy Missouri, a non-profit based in St. Louis that works to bridge the gap between people’s skills and the demands of the health care world.

Below is a list of health terms with easy-to-understand definitions that will help you navigate the evolving health care system. (Definitions provided with the help of the University of Michigan’s Plain Language Dictionary, CDC’s Plain Language Thesaurus, the American Heritage Medical Dictionary and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.)


Abrasion: a cut, scrape, or scratch

Abscess: an infection, wound or sore

Acute: rapid onset or sudden start, brief

Ambulatory: mobile, able to walk or move around, not confined to bed

Analgesic: a pain reliever, such as aspirin, Advil or Tylenol

Anemia: low iron level, which can make you feel tired

Angina: chest pain

Antibiotic: a medicine or drug that fights bacteria

Anti-inflammatory: a drug that prevents or reduces swelling and pain

Antiviral: medicine that fights viruses

Atrophy: a wasting-away of tissues in the body

Benign: not cancer

Biopsy: process for removing a tissue sample for testing

BMI: “body mass index,” which is a measure of body fat based on height and weight

Bowel: the intestine

Bradycardia: a slow heartbeat

Catheter: a type of tube used in various medical procedures

Cholesterol: a type of fat produced in your liver and transported by your blood

Chronic: long-term, lasting a long time or not having an ending

Colon: part of the large intestine

Colonoscopy: a test that looks inside your colon, or intestines, often to check for cancerous growths

Compression: the act of putting pressure on, or squeezing

Control: to manage or take power over

Contusions: bruises

CT scan: also referred to as a CAT scan, a type of x-ray test or scan

Edema: swelling

EHR/EMR: electronic health record or electronic medical record; the high-tech version of your old manila-folder patient file or chart

Embolism: a blood clot

Endoscope: an optical instrument that looks like a long, thin tube that is inserted into your body for viewing

Extremities: your limbs, often in reference to your hands and feet

Hemoglobin A1C: a test that looks at your blood sugar levels over the past three months

Hypertension: high blood pressure

Hypoglycemia: low blood sugar

Hypotension: low blood pressure

Inflammation: swelling or soreness

Influenza: a virus that causes the flu

Intravenous: putting medication or fluids directly into your veins, which is directly into your bloodstream

Irrigate: to wash (a wound or an opening)

Lesion: a cut, sore, wound or injury

Lipids: types of fats in your blood

Lumbar: the lower back area

Malignant: cancer, or cancerous

Noninvasive: doesn’t require any penetration, like with a needle

NSAIDs: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which are used to reduce pain and swelling but which can decrease the blood’s ability to clot

Obese: dangerously overweight

OTC: over the counter, medications not requiring a prescription

Palliative: relieving symptoms like pain without curing

Pneumonia: a serious infection of the lungs and respiratory system that can be caused by bacteria, viruses and other causes

Polyp: a growth or mass on a mucous membrane (usually not cancerous)

Renal: related to the kidneys

Subcutaneous: just beneath the skin

Susceptible: more likely to catch or be at risk for contracting

Sutures: stitches

Terminal: deadly or fatal

Topical: on the skin or surface of the body

Varicella: chicken pox

Vertigo: a condition where you feel dizziness or a whirling motion



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