57 Health Terms Everyone Should Know

Featured Article,Healthy Living,Power to the Patient
February 4, 2013

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

Common health terms that everyone should know.
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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.)

  1. Abrasion: a cut, scrape, or scratch
  2. Abscess: an infection, wound or sore
  3. Acute: rapid onset or sudden start, brief
  4. Ambulatory: mobile, able to walk or move around, not confined to bed
  5. Analgesic: a pain reliever, such as aspirin, Advil or Tylenol
  6. Anemia: low iron level, which can make you feel tired
  7. Angina: chest pain
  8. Antibiotic: a medicine or drug that fights bacteria
  9. Anti-inflammatory: a drug that prevents or reduces swelling and pain
  10. Antiviral: medicine that fights viruses
  11. Atrophy: a wasting-away of tissues in the body
  12. Benign: not cancer
  13. Biopsy: process for removing a tissue sample for testing
  14. BMI: “body mass index,” which is a measure of body fat based on height and weight
  15. Bowel: the intestine
  16. Bradycardia: a slow heartbeat
  17. Catheter: a type of tube used in various medical procedures
  18. Cholesterol: a type of fat produced in your liver and transported by your blood
  19. Chronic: long-term, lasting a long time or not having an ending
  20. Colon: part of the large intestine
  21. Colonoscopy: a test that looks inside your colon, or intestines, often to check for cancerous growths
  22. Compression: the act of putting pressure on, or squeezing
  23. Control: to manage or take power over
  24. Contusions: bruises
  25. CT scan: also referred to as a CAT scan, a type of x-ray test or scan
  26. Edema: swelling
  27. EHR/EMR: electronic health record or electronic medical record; the high-tech version of your old manila-folder patient file or chart
  28. Embolism: a blood clot
  29. Endoscope: an optical instrument that looks like a long, thin tube that is inserted into your body for viewing
  30. Extremities: your limbs, often in reference to your hands and feet
  31. Hemoglobin A1C: a test that looks at your blood sugar levels over the past three months
  32. Hypertension: high blood pressure
  33. Hypoglycemia: low blood sugar
  34. Hypotension: low blood pressure
  35. Inflammation: swelling or soreness
  36. Influenza: a virus that causes the flu
  37. Intravenous: putting medication or fluids directly into your veins, which is directly into your bloodstream
  38. Irrigate: to wash (a wound or an opening)
  39. Lesion: a cut, sore, wound or injury
  40. Lipids: types of fats in your blood
  41. Lumbar: the lower back area
  42. Malignant: cancer, or cancerous
  43. Noninvasive: doesn’t require any penetration, like with a needle
  44. NSAIDs: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which are used to reduce pain and swelling but which can decrease the blood’s ability to clot
  45. Obese: dangerously overweight
  46. OTC: over the counter, medications not requiring a prescription
  47. Palliative: relieving symptoms like pain without curing
  48. Pneumonia: a serious infection of the lungs and respiratory system that can be caused by bacteria, viruses and other causes
  49. Polyp: a growth or mass on a mucous membrane (usually not cancerous)
  50. Renal: related to the kidneys
  51. Subcutaneous: just beneath the skin
  52. Susceptible: more likely to catch or be at risk for contracting
  53. Sutures: stitches
  54. Terminal: deadly or fatal
  55. Topical: on the skin or surface of the body
  56. Varicella: chicken pox
  57. Vertigo: a condition where you feel dizziness or a whirling motion

Want to learn more important health terms? 

Click here for respiratory health terms you should know.

Click here for joint health terms you should know.

Click here for diabetes health terms you should know.

Click here for heart health terms you should know.

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