Basic Medical Vocabulary

On this page you can learn or review basic medical vocabulary for health care personnel, diseases, and medical tests and treatments. These are words in common use by both medical professionals and the general public-- useful for anyone who gives or receives health care. After looking them over, take a short quiz to check your understanding. (Click the links above to go directly to that part of the page.)

Titles of Medical Professionals

medical abbreviations: MD, RN, EMT, ER., ICU, CCU.
medical abbreviations: MD, RN, EMT, ER, ICU, CCU.

The title ‘doctor’ refers either to medical doctors (physicans) or to people with a doctorate degree in philosophy (PhDs—psychologists, university professors, etc.) or some other specialty like law. An M.D. after a person’s name always means they are a medical doctor, however. In everyday speech we always talk about going to the doctor, never “to the physician.”

Some common medical specialties:

  • Surgeons perform surgery (“operate on” people--cutting into their bodies to remove cancers, repair damaged tissues, etc.)
  • Anesthesiologists administer anesthesia so patients will not feel pain during surgery. 
  • Radiologists interpret X-rays.
  • General practitioners (G.P.s) are primary care physicians who may see their patients every year for a “check-up” when healthy. They are usually the first providers of care when ill.
  • Pediatricians care for children.

There are many other specialties, including cardiologists (heart doctors), dermatologists (for skin diseases), oncologists (cancer doctors), and internists (like GPs except emphasizing the internal organs—heart, stomach, etc.).

There are also many other types of health care professionals: nurses, EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians who help in ambulances, etc.), pharmacists who prepare and dispense drugs, dentists (as well as orthodontists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants) who work on teeth, medical social workers, and others.

Medical Vocabulary for Diseases

There are various words for health problems in English. When people don’t feel well, especially if we think their problem is caused by a virus or bacteria, we say they are ‘sick’ (or ‘ill,’ a little more formal.) If illnesses or sicknesses are serious or long-lasting, they are more likely to be called diseases.

Injuries are damage to body parts or organs, especially cuts and wounds (breaks in the skin—cuts are minor; wounds are deeper or large), burns, broken bones or tissue tears or twisting caused by accidents or attack.

Types & Causes of Disease:

Diseases have many possible causes. Some, like cancers, are the results of abnormal changes in normal body processes. Some have a genetic component, meaning that they are caused or affected by the genes a person receives from their parents. Many are caused or aggravated (made worse) by environmental or lifestyle factors like poison, smoking, air pollution, overeating, or lack of exercise.

Some diseases are degenerative. They get worse over time as tissue breaks down due to age or internal processes: arthritis, diabetes, many dementias, and many gastrointestinal, heart, and lung diseases. (There's a review of the nervous system and it's degenerative diseases, as well as a crossword puzzle to practice that vocabulary, at Nervous System Vocabulary.)

Other diseases like malaria, hookworm, tuberculosis, cholera, AIDS, or the flu, are infectious—caused by micro-organisms like viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites (as well as visible parasites like various kinds of worms.) If the disease is easily passed on to others, as many infectious diseases are, it’s ‘communicable.’  (There is simpler related vocabulary in Types of Germs.)

Diseases can be acute (sudden onset, short duration) or chronic (lasting years.) Diseases that are ‘endemic’ to a region occur in limited numbers but never completely disappear from the area. Epidemics are fast-spreading diseases that quickly infect a large proportion of the population and have high mortality (death) rates. Famous epidemics include the Black Death—bubonic plague—in the Middle Ages and the 1918 flu.

Medical Tests

Doctors base their diagnosis (decision about what a patient’s disease or problem is) on a combination of symptoms, observations, and tests. Misdiagnoses can lead to ineffective treatments and even fatalities, so a physical exam and medical tests have become an important part of medical care.

In a physical exam, the doctor examines the patient and checks vital signs (pulse, temperature, blood pressure, and respiration) and asks questions (takes a medical history.) Often the patient will complete a medical history form before the exam, so the doctor will already have the basic information about his or her past experience and family’s health. The doctor may also request various tests, especially if there are problems he or she wants to monitor.

In addition to several types of blood test, the doctor may order a urinalysis (chemical test of the urine), an ultrasound, X-rays, anMRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), CT (Computed Tomography) scan, an EKG or ECG (electrocardiogram, to check the heart), a colonoscopy (to check the large intestine), or a biopsy (a small sample of tissue cut out of an organ to check for cancer, etc.)

Treatment Vocabulary

Once the doctor has made a diagnosis (decided on the problem the patient has), he usually prescribes one or more treatments to try to help the patient get better. 

Medications (or medicines) can also be called ‘drugs.’ A drug is a substance that affects and changes the functioning of the the mind or body. Drugs can be legal (either prescribed or over the counter) or illegal. (‘Drug’ can also be a verb, meaning to give a person a drug. If someone is ‘drugged’ they are under the drug’s influence.)

A medication is a medicine prescribed by a doctor (to ‘medicate’ is to treat.) Medicines also include over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, which can be bought at a drugstore or pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription. Many herbs and other home remedies have been used for centuries by families or traditional healers to treat illnesses and injuries. (Tests have shown some to be at least as effective as current pharmaceutical drugs.) People sometimes also ‘self-medicate’ with whatever they think will make them feel better.

There is one more complication. 'Medicine' sometimes means the art that doctors practice rather than a drug. Hippocrates is called "the father of modern medicine." He laid the foundations of good medical practice.

Types of Medications

A small solid medication taken by mouth (whether it’s a gelatin capsule or a tablet) is called a pill. There are also liquid, topical, and injected medications. Topical means applied externally, to the skin: creams, lotions, and ointments.

Injections (often called shots in casual speech) can be subcutaneous (just under the skin) or intramuscular (into the muscle). Intravenous transfusions (IVs) are given directly into the veins, usually over a period of time.

The dosage refers to the amount and frequency of the medication. Frequency can vary from every hour to several times a day or p.r.n.—as needed. Possible toxicity and side effects of the drug should also be considered.

Other Treatments

Aids for injuries: cast, crutch, sling, traction, wheelchair.
Aids for injuries: cast, crutch, sling, traction, wheelchair.

Aids for broken bones or injured joints:

  • a brace or splint to keeps arm or leg straight,
  • a cast to keep a limb or joint immobile,
  • an elastic bandage to support joints & prevent twisting,
  • crutches to enable walking without putting weight on an injured leg or ankle,
  • a sling to support the weight of an injured arm and limit its movement,
  • traction to hold a leg in the best position for healing (the mechanism holds the leg above the bed)
  • a wheelchair to enable change of location without walking

General Treatments:

  • lifestyle changes like a healthier diet, exercise, stress relief, and rest
  • surgery (with all team members practicing careful aseptic technique to prevent infection since the surgeon will cut through the skin’s protective barrier
  • physical therapy (especially after surgery or for musculo-skeletal injuries)
  • oxygen therapy (for lung diseases)
  • chemotherapy or radiation (for cancer)
  • kidney dialysis (for kidney failure, often from long-term diabetes)
  • implanting a pacemaker to control heart rhythms
  • organ transplants

Medical Vocabulary Quiz

Instructions: Choose the best answer or answers for each question, then check your answer. (Some of these will require you to use inferences-- make logical guesses based on combining common knowledge with the information given above.) Click the right arrow to go on to the next question.


You might also be interested in Medical English (with information for health professionals, including links to ways to practice medical communication),  Scientific Method Vocabulary or Psychology Vocabulary Quiz.

Home> Learn English Vocabulary> Medical Vocabulary.

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