40 Common Health Care Terms You Should Know

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Take charge of your well-being by simplifying the language used by medical professionals.

Like many professions, health care has its own jargon. Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel use specialized terms to quickly communicate with each other. However, health care professionals also interact frequently with people who may not understand the jargon and could be confused by unfamiliar terminology.

When speaking with patients, most health care professionals try to explain things in plain language. They aren’t always successful, so we’ve put together this list of key medical terms you may hear in the doctor’s office or the hospital and decoded them for you.

  • Acute: serious conditions that happen suddenly are called acute. They may only last a short time, such as an acute illness like the flu.
  • Ambulatory: medical care given to people who can walk in and out of a hospital on their own. When a patient leaves the same day - not staying in the hospital overnight – it is called ambulatory care (also known as having an outpatient procedure).
  • Anemia: a condition caused by low iron levels in the blood. People with anemia have fewer healthy red blood cells, which reduces the amount of oxygen in their blood, making them feel tired and weak. 
  • Angina: chest pain that may be caused by a blockage in the vessels that deliver blood to the heart (coronary arteries). Angina can be a warning sign of heart disease or a heart attack.
  • Antibiotic: medicine that fights bacteria, often used when there is an infection.
  • Anti-inflammatory: a drug that reduces swelling, which can cause pain.
  • Antiviral: medicine that fights viruses, which can be given to clear up an infection caused by a virus.
  • Benign: something that is not dangerous or not cancerous. For example, a benign growth in the body.
  • Biopsy: taking a sample of tissue for further examination and testing, usually to determine if a suspicious area is cancerous or not.
  • BMI: body mass index, a way of determining if someone’s weight is normal for their height. 
  • BMP: basic metabolic panel, a set of lab tests to check for levels of various substances in the blood, such as sugar and calcium.
  • Bradycardia: a slower than normal heartbeat. People with bradycardia can feel faint or dizzy and have difficulty breathing.
  • CBC: complete blood count, a set of lab tests used to evaluate blood cells for problems and identify conditions. 
  • Chronic: a long-term condition, such as a chronic illness that is permanent or expected to last a long time. 
  • Comorbidity: having two or more conditions or diseases at the same time. For example, having both heart disease and high blood pressure.
  • Contusions: bruises are called contusions and may be the result of being hit by something or falling down.
  • Edema: swelling caused by too much fluid building up in an area of the body. 
  • EHR: electronic health record, also known as an electronic medical record. It’s a computerized system used to store and retrieve patient records.
  • Embolism: when something like a clot gets stuck in a blood vessel, causing a blockage of blood flow.
  • Epidermis: the outer layer of your skin.
  • HDL: high-density lipoprotein, a type of cholesterol. HDL is considered good cholesterol because it helps to remove more troublesome cholesterol from your blood.
  • Hypertension: high blood pressure, defined as having a blood pressure level of 140/90 or higher.
  • Hypotension: low blood pressure, defined as having blood pressure less than 90/60.  
  • Inpatient: when someone is admitted to a hospital overnight or longer, they are an inpatient.
  • Intravenous: medications or fluids injected into a vein are intravenous. 
  • Irrigate: cleaning part of the body with a fluid. For example, irrigating a wound by flushing it with a sterile solution helps remove dead tissue and other debris.
  • LDL: low-density lipoprotein, a type of cholesterol. LDL is considered bad cholesterol, because it can stick to the walls of blood vessels and reduce blood flow.
  • Lesion: abnormal changes in organ or tissue caused by injury or disease. For example, someone could have a skin lesion, where a patch of skin looks different than the skin around it.
  • LFT: liver function tests, used to diagnose and monitor liver disease.
  • Malignant: used to describe cells or a growth which is cancerous.
  • Noninvasive: procedures that don’t require instruments to placed into the body. For example, an X-ray is noninvasive, as it shows what a bone looks like without having to cut into the body. 
  • OTC: over the counter, as in medicines you can buy at a pharmacy without having a prescription.
  • Outpatient: when someone goes to the hospital for treatment but does not have to stay overnight, they are an outpatient. For example, an outpatient procedure is one where you can go home the same day.
  • Polyp: a small growth in the lining of the bowel. These can be identified and removed during a colonoscopy to prevent them from turning into cancer. 
  • Prognosis: the likely or expected outcome. For example, a doctor may say that the prognosis after having a procedure is a full recovery.  
  • Relapse: after someone improves, but then their condition deteriorates, it is a relapse. 
  • Remission: when disease symptoms lessen or a disease disappears completely. For example, a person’s cancer could be in remission. 
  • Subcutaneous: under the skin, as in an injection that is made into the layer of tissue between the skin and the muscle.
  • Terminal: an illness that cannot be cured and is likely fatal.
  • Topical: when medicine is applied to the skin. For example, a topical ointment.

We hope this list is helpful, but it’s only a small amount of the medical jargon you may hear. When a health care professional uses a term you’re unfamiliar with or unsure of, don’t hesitate to ask them to explain it to you. It’s important that you understand completely what’s happening with your health care so that you can participate fully in getting better and staying healthy.