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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