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Commonly Used Medical Terms Made Clear

By Bob Aronson

cartoonTo most of us the abbreviations and phrases used in the medical world are another language from another planet.   Few understand what is written on the prescription they take to the pharmacy just as they don’t always understand the discharge instructions they get from a hospital or an emergency room.

To save time and clarify communication internally medical professionals have developed a very special system of codes, abbreviations and phrases that are quite exact in their meaning.  Unfortunately these same professionals often forget that the rest of us don’t have their training, education and expertise and use this “internal” language on patients who are often left dumbfounded because of a reluctance to ask for clarification.

The picture to the right is a real prescription and when you see it for the first time you probably are struck by the sameillegible prescription question most of us have, “How on earth does the pharmacist read that mess?”  Well,  the answer is that pharmacists understand the code words, phrases and abbreviations used by physicians but, they get stumped just like you do so they call and ask for clarification.   You should do that, too.   If you aren’t perfectly clear about what your medicine is and what it does you should seek clarification  first from your doctor and then from the pharmacist.

The list of common medical terms below was taken from several sources and I have tried to simplify it as best I could but should you be confronted with these terms or others not listed here that you still don’t understand don’t be afraid to ask and ask again until you have a perfectly clear explanation.  After all, it is your health, your body and your life and the medical people owe you a clear explanation of your condition, your diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan including the medicine they have prescribed and what it does.

Miscommunication can be deadly.  You owe it to yourself to ask a lot of questions.  If you have done that and find that after processing what you heard you have more questions you should call your physician’s office for clarification. Do the same with your pharmacist or any other medical professional with whom you have contact.

Below is a list of the most common medical terms and abbreviations.  Note…you will see a mixture of upper and lower case entries.  These are not typos.   It is the way they are actually written.

Common prescription terms and abbreviations

AD: up to (defining a limit.)

BUSS: Inside the cheek

C: (With a straight line over the top ): With

cf: With food

h.s.: at bedtime

bid: twice a day

tid: three times a day

qd: daily

o.p.d.: once per day

q.a.d.: every other day

q.i.d: four times a day

sig: write on label

SL: sublingually, under the tongue

WF : with food

Terms and abbreviations used in prescriptions and elsewhere

a.c.: Before meals. As in taking a medicine before meals.

Ad lib At liberty. For example, a patient may be permitted to move out of bed freely and orders would, therefore, be for activities to be ad lib.

AKA: Above the knee amputation.

Anuric: Not producing urine.  That means the patient may need dialysis.

Bibasilar: At the bases of both lungs. For example, someone with pneumonia in both lungs might have abnormal  breath sounds.

BKA: Below the knee amputation.

BMP: Basic metabolic panel blood test.

BP: Blood pressure.. Blood pressure is one of several vital signs.

BSO: Bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy.  The removal of both of the ovaries and adjacent Fallopian tubes often part of a total abdominal hysterectomy.

C/O: Complaint of. The patient’s expressed concern.

cap: Capsule.

CBC: Complete blood count

CC: Chief complaint. The patient’s main concern.

cc: Cubic centimeters.

Chem panel: Chemistry panel. A comprehensive screening blood test to determine the status of the liver, kidneys and electrolytes.

COPD: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

CVA: Cerebrovascular Accident (stroke)

D/C or DC: Discontinue or discharge. Adoctor will D/C a drug or DC a patient from the hospital.

DM: Diabetes Mellitus.

DNC, D&C, or D and C: Dilation and curettage.  Widening the cervix and scrapping with a curette for the purpose of removing tissue lining the inner surface of the uterus.

DNR: Do not resuscitate. This is a specific order not to revive a patient artificially if they succumb to illness. If a patient is given a DNR order, they are not resuscitated if they are near death and no code blue is called.  Usually requested by the patient or family.

DOE: Dyspnea on exertion. Shortness of breath with activity.

DTR: Deep tendon reflexes. These are reflexes that the doctor tests by banging on the tendons with a rubber hammer.

DVT: Deep venous thrombosis (blood clot I large vein).

FX: Fracture.

H&H: hemoglobin and hematocrit.  When the H & H is low, anemia is present.

H&P: History and physical examination.

h.s.: At bedtime. As in taking a medicine at bedtime.

H/O or h/o: History of. A past event that occurred.

HA: Headache.

HTN: Hypertension (high blood pressure)

I&D: incision and drainage.

IM: Intramuscular.. This is a typical notation when noting or ordering an injection (shot) given into muscle..

IMP: Impression. This is the summary conclusion of the patient’s condition by the healthcare practitioner at that particular date and time.

In vitro: In the laboratory.

In vivo: In the body.

IU: International unit

JT: Joint

K: Potassium. An essential electrolyte frequently monitored regularly in intensive care.

KCL: Potassium chloride.

LBP: Low back pain. LBP is one of most common medical complaints.

LLQ:: Left lower quadrant.

LUQ:: Left upper quadrant..

Lytes: Electrolytes (potassium, sodium, carbon dioxide, and chloride).

MCL: Medial collateral ligament.

mg: Milligrams.

ml: Milliliters.

MVP: Mitral valve prolapse.

N/V: Nausea or vomiting

Na: Sodium. An essential electrolyte frequently monitored regularly in intensive care.

npo: Nothing by mouth. Often ordered when a patient is about to undergo surgery requiring general anesthesia.  It means no food or drink.

O&P: Ova and parasites.  Stool O & P is tested in the laboratory to detect parasitic infection in persons with chronic diarrhea..

O.D.: Right eye.

O.S.: Left eye.

O.U.: Both eyes.

ORIF: Open reduction and internal fixation such as with the orthopedic repair of a hip.

P: Pulse. Pulse is recorded as part of the physical examination. It is one of the “vital signs.”

p.o.: By mouth. From the Latin terminology per os.

p.r.n.: As needed. Example a pain killer may be taken only when the patient has pain or “as needed.

PCL: Posterior cruciate ligament..

PERRLA: Pupils equal, round, and reactive to light and accommodation.

Plt: Platelets, one of the blood forming elements along with the white and red blood cells.

PMI: Point of maximum impulse of the heart when felt during examination, as in beats against the chest.

q2h: Every 2 hours. As in taking a medicine every 2 hours.

q3h: Every 3 hours. As in taking a medicine every 3 hours.

qAM: Each morning. As in taking a medicine each morning.

qhs: At each bedtime. As in taking a medicine each bedtime.

qod: Every other day. As in taking a medicine every other day.

qPM: Each evening. As in taking a medicine each evening.

R/O: Rule out. Doctors frequently will rule out various possible diagnoses when figuring out the correct diagnosis..

REB: Rebound, as in rebound tenderness of the abdomen when pushed in and then released.

RLQ: Right lower quadrant. The appendix is located in the RLQ of the abdomen.

ROS: Review of systems. An overall review concerns relating to the organ systems, such as the respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurologic systems.

RUQ: Right upper quadrant. The liver is located in the RUQ of the abdomen.

s/p: Status post. For example, a person who had a knee operation would be s/p a knee operation.

SOB: Shortness of breath.

SQ: Subcutaneous.. This is a typical notation when noting or ordering an injection (shot) given into the fatty tissue under the skin, such as with insulin for diabetes.

T: Temperature. Temperature is recorded as part of the physical examination. It is one of the “vital signs.”

T&A: Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy.

tab: Tablet

TAH: Total abdominal hysterectomy..

THR: Total hip replacement.

TKR: Total knee replacement.

UA or u/a: Urinalysis.. A UA is a typical part of a comprehensive physical examination.

URI: Upper respiratory infection like sinusitis or the common cold

ut dict: As directed. As in taking a medicine according to the instructions that the healthcare practitioner gave in the office or in the past.

UTI: Urinary tract infection.

VSS: Vital signs are stable. This notation means that from the standpoint of the temperature, blood pressure, and pulse, the patient is doing well.

Wt: Weight. Body weight is often recorded as part of the physical examination.

Commonly used prefixes and suffixes


1. “Angio…”
Related to the blood vessels
(Angioplasty, etc.)

2. “Lobo…”
Relating to either the brain or lungs.
(Lobotomy, etc.)

3. “Nephro…”
Relating to the kidneys.
(A Nephrologist is a doctor who specializes in medical conditions impacting the kidneys.)

4. “Hyster …”
Relating to the uterous.
(Hysterectomy, etc.)

5. “Gastro …”
Relating to the atomach
(Gastroenteritis, etc.)

6. “Myo…”
Related to muscle tissue.

6. “Arthr…”
Related to the joints.
(Arthritis, arthoscopic surgery, etc.)

7. “Encephal…”
Related to the brain
(Encephalitis, encephlitiform activity, i.e. seizures.)


1. Something or other… “itis”
Whatever the ‘something’ is is inflamed and possibly infected.
(Pancreatitis, appendicitis, tonsilitis, etc.)

2. “…ectomy”
The removal of whatever body part precedes it.
(Appendisectomy, tonsilectomy, hemorrhoidectomy, hysterectomyetc.)

3. “… otomy”
A surgical incision into whatever precedes it.

4. “… scentesis”
The surgical puncturing of something – deliberately
(Amnioscentesis to draw fluid from the uterine sac to check on the condition of a fetus.)

5. “…septic”
From a Greek word meaning putrefaction (rotting), as “spsis” it is used to refer to an infection of the entire system, particularly through the circulatory (blood) system and is considered quite seious.
The opposite, of course, is “Antiseptic”… the purification of something from germs and bacterial contamination.

6. “… ostomy”
The putting a hole in something in the hopes that it will help it function better.

7. “… plasty”
To modify or reshape.
(A “nose job” is a rhinoplasty, etc.)


Bob informal 3Bob Aronson is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder and primary author of the blogs on this site and the founder of Facebook’s over 3,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative group.

Now retired and living in Jacksonville, Florida with his wife Robin he spends his time advocating for patients with end stage diseases and for organ recipients.  He is also active in helping his wife with her art business at art festivals and on her Rockin Robin Prints site on Etsy. 

Bob is a former journalist, Governor’s Communication Director and international communications consultant.

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