13 Medical Phrases Every Patient Must Know

Have you ever listened to a doctor, read a medical article, or even a prescription and thought to yourself, “What do all of those Latin phrases and abbreviations mean?” I know I have for years, and this curiosity really encouraged me to research some of those confusing terms and shortenings once and for all and finally gain a deeper understanding of my own health. We guarantee that you, too, will learn some useful medical lingo from this article, and maybe even bookmark it for future reference.

1. In vitro/ in vivo

Medical Terms microscope
These terms are most commonly used to denote two different kinds of studies, but they can also be used to describe a procedure, e.g. in-vitro fertilization. The phrase in vitro can be translated as “in glass” from Latin, and it refers to a procedure or study in a petri dish, which is an experiment performed outside of a living organism.
In vitro studies often aim to examine the effect and safety of potential medications on human or animal cells in a controlled environment, i.e. the petri dish, usually before being replicated on live subjects. In vivo means “within the living” in Latin, and it refers to a study or procedure conducted on a live subject, be it a plant, lab animal, or human. In vivo studies are considered more credible and are necessary to access the full effect of a potential treatment, for example, on a live organism.

2. Noninvasive/ invasive

When something, like a treatment, for example, involves entering the human body with instruments, this treatment is said to be invasive. A classic example of invasive treatment is surgery, but even an injection is considered invasive.
Noninvasive, on the other hand, means that the treatment doesn’t require entering the body with tools, and this treatment route is considered simpler. Extra tip: another way to say that a treatment is simple and noninvasive is to state that it’s conservative.

3. Acute/ chronic

Medical Terms girl in the hospital
Acute illnesses are such that begin suddenly but usually last for a short time, i.e. usually up to a few weeks. For instance, one of the most serious concerns in Covid-19 patients is the development of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a sudden respiratory failure caused by widespread inflammation in the lungs.
Chronic conditions, on the other hand, develop slowly - from months to years - and tend to get worse over time. Rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory condition that develops over years or even decades, is a classic example of a chronic condition.

4. Abbreviations referring to cardiovascular health

Medical Terms stethoscope
BP is short for blood pressure. BP is always shown in the form of a fraction, e.g. 120/80 mm Hg. In this fraction, the systolic BP is the top number, and the diastolic BP is the one on the bottom.
HR stands for heart rate, and it is measured in beats per minute (or bpm). For example, the normal HR is between 60-100 bpm.
The two common shortenings for cholesterol measurements are HDL-C and LDL-C. The former refers to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol or HDL cholesterol, which is often called “good” cholesterol. LDL-C, on the other hand, is the low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, which is also often mentioned as “bad” cholesterol.
Also here are common shortenings of some heart conditions:
  • CHD—coronary heart disease
  • CHF—congestive heart failure 
  • CAD—coronary artery disease.

5. Benign/ malignant

In medicine, the distinction between benign and malignant is most often used to describe a tumor. The National Cancer Institute defines a tumor as “an abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should.” Tumors are more common than we think, and only some of them are harmful. In fact, every mole on your body is considered a tumor.
To be able to distinguish these dangerous tumors from harmless ones, the terms benign and malignant are used. Benign tumors are not cancerous, and they don’t develop at all or grow very slowly. Malignant tumors, on the other hand, are cancerous. These tumors grow fast and can even spread to other parts of the body, which is why they are considered dangerous.
There is also a third type - premalignant tumors - which are those that are not dangerous yet but have the potential to become cancerous.

6. Abbreviations on prescriptions

Medical Terms medications
While reading a prescription, you may have come across a shortening that starts with q-. This is the abbreviation of the Latin word quaque that means “each or every.” Here’s what each specific abbreviation means:
  • qd—every day
  • qh—every hour
  • q2h, q6h, … etc, —every 2 hours, every 2 hours, …
  • qid—four times a day
  • qhs—every night at bedtime.
There are also a few abbreviations that don’t involve quaque, such as these:
  • tid—three times a day, from the Latin “ter in die” meaning literally “three times a day”.
  • bid—twice a day, from the Latin “bis in die.”
  • od—once a day, from the Latin “omne in die.”
A prescription will also usually tell you how to take the medicine. And for this, there are separate abbreviations, here are a few:
  • po—by mouth 
  • ac—before meals 
  • pc—after meals 
  • prn—as needed, whenever necessary.

7. Idiopathic

Unfortunately, medical science hasn’t yet been able to categorize every health condition out there, and sometimes, the cause of a specific set of symptoms is unknown or cannot be determined. When this is the case, the condition is said to be idiopathic, or “relating to or denoting any disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown” according to the Oxford dictionary.

The term stems from the Greek idios "one's own" and pathos "suffering," which can be approximately translated as “a disease of its own kind.”

8. Etiology

The etiology of a certain health condition is a fancy word for its cause. One could say, for example, that the etiology of an idiopathic condition is unknown. The term is derived from the Greek word aitiología, which means "giving a reason for something."

9. Abbreviations for ways to administer a drug

Medical Terms injection

There are many ways a medication can end up in your body, and each of these has its own abbreviation. You may be already familiar with the IV - or the intravenous route - as it’s the common term, but here are a few other shortenings:

  • PO—by the mouth.
  • SL—sublingual, medication given under the tongue.
  • IM—intramuscular, when medication is administered directly into a muscle, like a vaccine shot.
  • INH—inhaled, like an asthma inhaler.
  • PR—rectally.
  • ID—intradermal, medication given under the dermis (top layer of the skin).

10. Abatement

You’ve likely heard of the term remission, which stands for the disappearance of the symptoms of a disease. But what is abatement? It’s similar, but not quite the same. Abatement refers to the reduction in the severity of symptoms. For example, allergy vaccines usually lead to abatement but not the full disappearance of the allergy.

Related Article: 25 Medical Terms That Will Impress Your Doctor

11. Miscellaneous abbreviations

Here are a few more useful abbreviations you could encounter in your medical history, and what they mean:

  • FUO—fever of undetermined origin
  • FH—family history
  • Fx—fracture
  • V/S—vital signs
  • NKA—no known allergies
  • WNL—within normal limits.

12. Topical

Medical Terms cream
Topical (or local) treatment or medication is such that is applied to a particular area of the body as opposed to the entire body. Most often, this refers to a medication in a cream or ointment form that is intended to be used on the surface of the skin or mucous membranes. For example, if you have an insect bite, you can apply Panthenol creme topically (or locally).

13. Syndrome

The term syndrome is often confused with either symptom or disease, but it’s neither of those things. While diseases or disorders both have a definite and identifiable medical cause, a syndrome is a collection of signs and symptoms that might not always have a definite cause. For example, the common cold is a disease that is most commonly caused by rhinoviruses, so it wouldn’t be correct to call the common cold a syndrome.

Carpal tunnel, on the other hand, is called a syndrome because it happens as a result of the compression of the median nerve in the wrist, but it can be caused by a few different things, including fractures, fluid retention, diabetes, and even high blood pressure.

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