Medical terms A to Z: Common and confusing terms used in the doctor’s office

Generally, a doctor’s visit is intended to provide clarity and insight into a patient’s concerns — but many people are all too familiar with the feeling of walking out of a clinic more confused than when they arrived. In fact, many Americans find themselves searching for health literacy tips after becoming confused by a doctor’s instructions or the directions on a prescription label.

To help provide clarity on some common medical terms, we’ve assembled this glossary of words that can be difficult to understand. This includes terms related to chronic illnesses, clinical trial participation, and medical information. Though it’s far from an exhaustive list, we hope it can provide some guidance.

Difficult medical terms: A glossary from A to Z

Acute: Sudden start of symptoms. “Strep throat is an acute illness because it comes on quickly.”

Aggravate: Make something worse. “Being out in the sun aggravates Holly's lupus symptoms.”

Anemia: A condition where an individual lacks an adequate amount of red blood cells. “Anemia can make exercise difficult, due to feeling tired and weak.”

Antibiotics: Drugs that either kill or stop the growth of bacteria. “Viral infections cannot be treated by antibiotics.”

Anti-inflammatory: A medicine that reduces pain and swelling. “Anti-inflammatories are known to help with arthritis symptoms.”

Asymptomatic: Not showing symptoms of an illness or condition. “Some individuals can have COVID-19 while asymptomatic.”

Autoimmune disease: A disease that makes your immune system attack your own body. “Celiac is an autoimmune disease that causes a reaction to eating gluten.”

Benign: Not a danger. “Jackie was relieved to find out that her tumor was benign.”

Chronic: Does not go away or lasts a long time. “HIV/AIDS is a chronic disease; it can be managed but not cured.”

Clinical study: Studies in a medical setting that involve patients. “Renee is enrolling in a clinical study aimed at researching memory.”

Clinical trial: A study that tests a potential new medication or medical device for safety and effectiveness. “All medications in the U.S. must go through clinical trials before being approved by the FDA.”

Condition: A disease or medical problem. “Clinical trials often look for volunteers living with a certain condition.”

Cutaneous: Related to the skin “Lupus can have cutaneous symptoms that appear on different parts of the body.”

Convalescence: Time spent recovering from an illness. “After Holly broke her hip, she had a long period of convalescence.”

Degenerative: Causing more damage over time. “Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease that causes memory loss over time.”

Deteriorate: Breaking down, getting worse. “Liz’s hearing has deteriorated, so now she’s using hearing aids.”

Dose: An amount of medicine. “Julie’s doctor gave her instructions about the right dose of her medication.”

Effective: Something that works. “Sam found an effective treatment for his rheumatoid arthritis.”

Exert: To put in effort. “Rob’s physical therapist told him to not exert himself before warming up properly.”

Fast: To go without any food or drink for a period of time. “Pete had to fast for a day before his procedure.”

Fatigue: A strong tired feeling that goes beyond just sleepiness. “One of the symptoms of flu is fatigue.”

Gradually: Slowly, over time. “Gloria's flu symptoms gradually got better over the course of the week.”

Glucose: Refers to blood sugar. “Greg has diabetes, so he needs to check his glucose levels often.”

High risk: There's a good chance something will happen. “He is at high risk for the condition because it runs in his family.”

Hypersensitivity: Having a strong reaction to something. “Chemotherapy patients often experience a hypersensitivity to cold.”

Idiopathic: Arising from an unknown cause. “Most cases of Parkinson's disease are idiopathic.”

Immune system: The part of the body that fights against germs and infection. “Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet can help your immune system work effectively.”

Inflammation: Swelling, redness, heat, and pain that happens when parts of the body are hurt or react to an illness. The symptoms are caused by the body sending extra blood cells to the place that is hurt. “Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation in the joints.”

Inhibit: Prevent or block. “Regular hand washing is a good way to inhibit the spread of germs.”

Intravenous: Through a vein; putting fluids or medicine into a vein using a needle. “Alicia received her medication intravenously.”

Localized: In a small area. “The flu outbreak seems to be localized to one classroom.”

Long-term: A period of time longer than a few weeks or months. “After her hip replacement, Donna spent time in long-term care.”

Malignant: Invasive; a malignant tumor grows uncontrollably and spreads to other parts of the body. “Lorie was relieved that her tumor was not malignant.”

Moderate: Between weak and strong. “Charles was told to call his doctor if his pain progressed from mild to moderate.”

Monitor: To watch carefully for changes. “After the surgery, Lilly’s caretaker was told to monitor her closely.”

Narcotic: A strong medicine used to treat pain. “When taking a narcotic, it isn’t advised to drive or operate heavy machinery.”

Negative: In medicine, a negative result means that something is not there. “Holly's strep throat test came back negative; she was glad she did not have strep throat.”

Neurologic: Having to do with the nervous system. “Multiple sclerosis can have many neurologic symptoms.”

Observe: To watch. “Adria's doctor wanted to observe her for a few days after the surgery.”

Occasionally: Sometimes. “Nancy's eczema was mostly cleared up, but she occasionally still has symptoms.”

Occupational therapist: A healthcare professional who helps you learn how to do everyday tasks at home or at work after a surgery or diagnosis. “After his injury, John saw an occupational therapist for help at work.”

On an empty stomach: Without eating; typically used when describing whether or not to eat or drink before taking a certain medication. “The doctor told Harold to take the medication on an empty stomach before breakfast.”

Oral medication: Medication that you swallow. “Maria was instructed to take this oral medication twice daily.”

Paramount: Most important. “The doctor said it was paramount that Julie rest her legs after knee surgery.”

Permanent: Never goes away. “Alice went to the dentist and got a permanent new tooth.”

Pertinent: Important. “It’s pertinent that patients adhere to the medication’s dosage guidelines.”

Physical therapist: Someone who works with you to improve pain and build strength. “After his knee replacement, John worked with a physical therapist for a few months to build his strength.”

Placebo: In clinical trials, a substance that has no effect and is used for control purposes. “Clinical trial participants will receive the medication or a placebo.”

Positive: In medicine, positive means that a test was done and a disease was detected. “Tiffany's test came back positive for pneumonia so she will start on treatment.”

Prescription: A doctor's recommendation for a certain medication. “Todd's doctor wrote him a prescription for an antibiotic.”

Prevent: To stop from happening. “Regular exercise and healthy eating can help prevent heart disease.”

Progression: In medicine, getting worse over time. “The stages of cancer refer to the progression of the disease.”

Quarantine: To be separated in order to stop the spread of infection. “Janet went into quarantine as soon as she started feeling sick.

Reaction: Response. “Many people have a reaction to this kind of medication.”

Regular: Happening on a schedule. “Regular exercise can help you stay healthy.”

Relief: Feeling better. “The painkiller gave Joan some relief.”

Remission: A period of time when a disease is not active. “Annie threw a party when her cancer went into remission.”

Research study: Tests for potential new treatments. “Research studies are looking for individuals to participate.”

Sensitive: Easily hurt; reacting easily. “Some medications are known to make a person more sensitive to heat.”

Severe: Very bad. “Taking certain medications on an empty stomach can cause severe stomach problems.”

Side effect: A reaction caused by a medication. “While some side effects are negative, a common side effect of birth control is the reduction of acne.”

Sign: A medical problem noticed by a doctor. “Ralph had signs of arthritis in his knees.”

Stamina: Endurance. “Since Stella's hip replacement, she's found that she doesn't have the same stamina for exercise that she used to.”

Steroids: Medications that are used to reduce inflammation. “Steroids can help treat pain for acute or chronic conditions.”.

Supplement: To add on. “Taking vitamins can supplement a healthy diet.”

Suppress: To hold back. “Some medications can suppress the body’s immune system.”

Taper: To reduce over time. “Kevin's doctor tapered him off the painkiller he was taking.”

Temporary: For a short time. “Amanda's dentist told her that the pain after her procedure would only be temporary.”

Therapy: A treatment. “Clinical trials explore potential new therapies for different conditions.”

Treatment: Something given to a person to make a condition better. “Nate's doctor worked with him on his diabetes treatment plan.”

Trigger: A cause. “Stress can be a trigger for arthritis symptoms.”

Unnecessary: Not needed or important. “Cynthia's doctor wanted to make sure she didn't get an unnecessary surgery.”

Vague: Unclear. “Steve felt like his doctor's instructions were vague, so he asked him a few follow-up questions.”

Voluntary: Choosing to do something on your own. “Participating in clinical trials is completely voluntary.”

Warning signs: Signals that alert you something might be wrong. “A sore throat can be a warning sign of a cold.”

Wheeze: A whistling sound when inhaling and exhaling. “A wheeze is common for people dealing with asthma.”

For individuals interested in becoming more knowledgeable about various clinical trial related terminology, joining a research study can be a great opportunity. If you’re interested, use the button below to see what opportunities are currently enrolling.