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Medical Terminology

Medical Specialists

Nursing Student Guide to Nursing Terminology

Ad lib

Ad lib stands for "at liberty." Nurses sometimes write this in their nursing notes or discharge reports to indicate that a patient can do something as much as they want. For example, a nurse may tell a patient they can eat ad lib after an operation.


Nurses and medical staff use this term to describe patients. An alert patient responds to directions and understands where they are and what they are doing. This term is opposite to an unresponsive patient, who is unconscious or confused.


Ambulate is another term to describe a patient. An ambulate patient can walk around and move about freely. When nurses use this term, they inform other nurses that a patient may not need as much monitoring as a patient who is not ambulatory.

Banana bag

A banana bag, also known as a rally bag, is an IV bag filled with minerals, vitamins and water. Banana bags are often yellow and help patients with chemical imbalances or nutritional deficiencies. Nurses use banana bags to treat dehydration and promote healthy muscle and nerve function.


Nurses use the term bandemia to describe a situation in which too many of a patient's white blood cells are being released into their bloodstream. This usually means the patient is fighting an infection or inflammation. Nurses discover bandemia through unusual lab results.

Code brown

Code brown is a term nurses use for an emergency involving incontinence. While nurses use this term during their regular shifts, code brown sometimes also refers to an external emergency, such as a tornado, flooding or major car crash. However, because of the very different contexts in which doctors and nurses use this term, medical professionals can distinguish the two.

Frequent flyer

A frequent flyer is a patient who visits the hospital or clinic often. Nurses use this term to describe patients so that their coworkers can adjust their practices while caring for the patient. When treating a frequent flyer, nurses take special care to help the patient manage their symptoms so that they can limit their visits.


A hat is a device that fits inside a toilet to collect samples from patients. This allows nurses to monitor patients closely and provides samples to send to laboratories. Nurses put hats in toilets when they need to monitor a patient for a possible illness.


An ileus is a blockage in a patient's intestines. Nurses alert doctors of this and record it in their notes to ensure that the patient receives additional care and monitoring. Ileuses can lead to potential blockage, so it is important for nurses to recognize this term and its symptoms.

In vitro

In vitro refers to something from a lab. Nurses use this term to refer to patient samples when they are waiting for lab test results. Professionals use this term in a variety of settings, but it is commonly used in fertility clinics and neonatal wards to describe the conception of the babies conceived with the help of IVF medical efforts.

In vivo

In vivo is the opposite term of in vitro. In vivo means refers to something within another living organism. Neonatal nurses and professionals in fertility clinics use this term to describe a baby who developed inside a womb.


Pre-op stands for pre-operation. This refers to any medical interventions, protocols or other events that take place before a patient's operation. Nurses use this term when providing instructions to their coworkers and explaining protocols to patients and their families. For example, a nurse may advise a patient not to eat pre-op.


Post-op stands for post-operation. This refers to all the medical happenings that take place after a patient's operation. Nurses use this term to explain the practices that patients need to adopt after an operation. For example, a nurse may instruct a patient to take showers instead of baths post-op to avoid soaking a suture site.


Nurses use this term when treating patients with memory-related conditions, such as dementia. Sundowning refers to the time of the day when a patient's memory weakens. During this time, a patient may also start acting in ways that are uncharacteristic for them. Since this often happens around sunset, nurses and medical professionals use the term sundowning to describe the patient's behavior change.



Tachy is an abbreviation of tachycardia. This is a condition in which a patient's heart is beating irregularly fast. Nurses shorten this medical term to save on time while still being clear about the patient's condition. For example, if a patient was having a panic attack, a nurse may tell their colleagues the patient is tachy to let them know the patient needs immediate attention.


Nurses use the term "total" to describe a patient who needs extensive care. This can include patients who need IVs, feeding assistance and other medical interventions. This term helps communicate the level of care a patient requires to other medical professionals, which helps them understand their responsibilities regarding the patient.



A walkie-talkie is a patient who needs minimal bedside care. These patients can communicate, feed themselves and walk without help. Often, walkie-talkie patients are near the end of the hospitalization. Nurses communicate this to each other so that the nurse taking over the next shift knows to prepare for discharge protocols.



When nurses administer narcotics and other medications, the dosage the patient needs sometimes does not match the total amount of the substance. Due to safety protocols, medical professionals cannot use this leftover amount for other patients, so nurses dispose of the remaining medication. Nurses call this "waste." To follow protocol, nurses announce they need to "waste" in order to get a witness for the practice. This ensures nurses dispose of all narcotics and needles safely.


Nursing abbreviations

When writing nursing notes and completing medical charts, nurses often use abbreviations to save time and notify other professionals about a patient's prescriptions, pre-op and post-op orders. Here is a list of some of the common abbreviations these professionals use:


·       AC: Before meals

·       ADR: Adverse drug reaction

·       DC: Discontinue or discharge

·       DNR: Do not resuscitate

·       HS: At bedtime

·       IV: Intravenous

·       NPO: Nothing by mouth

·       PRN: When necessary

·       OOB: Out of bed

·       OR - Operating room 

·       HOB - Head of Bed


General nursing terms

  • Charge Nurse: A nurse who supervises the care of patients within a nursing department (This role is not to be confused with a nurse manager who has more administrative duties.)

  • Clinicals: Part of nursing education where student nurses provide patient care in a hospital setting under the supervision of staff nurses and their clinical instructors

  • Chart: Medical documentation usually kept in digital form that follows the patient at one hospital; includes medical history, examination, test and imaging results, diagnosis, medications, and a record of events throughout each shift

  • Charting: The process of adding information to the chart by healthcare providers to accurately record the events that happen to the patient

  • NCLEX: National Council Licensure Examination; a computer adaptive test nursing students must complete and pass to get their state nursing license to practice nursing

  • Heart Rate: The speed at which the heart beats; recorded in beats per minute

  • Respiratory Rate: The number of times a patient breathes in one minute

  • Vital Signs: Biophysical indicators of health that include body temperature, pulse, respirations, blood pressure, and level of pain

  • Pain Scale: A scale used to measure a patient's level of pain; adults are usually given a choice of zero to 10 (zero being no pain and 10 being the most painful), and children may be offered visual cues to rate their pain ; using the same scale each time allows providers to determine if the pain is getting better or worse

  • Specimen: Samples taken from a patient's body for testing, such as blood, urine, sputum, tissue, and stool

  • Code Blue: Term used to indicate a medical emergency that requires immediate attention, such as a cardiac arrest

  • Pre-op: Pre-operation; care given to a patient directly before surgery; sometimes used to indicate medication given in preparation for anesthesia

  • Post-op: Post-operation; care, interventions, and education given after surgery to prepare a patient for discharge or to return to the hospital unit; for example, a patient may be advised to eat only soft food for two days post-op

  • Ad lib: Patients are "at liberty" or do not have any restrictions in certain areas of care; for example, a patient may be up ad lib, meaning they can be out of bed as much as they would like

  • Ileus: An intestinal blockage that can happen after surgery, with certain medications, infections, or health conditions; may resolve spontaneously or may require surgery

  • PRN: Latin abbreviation for "pro re nata," which means "as necessary" or "as needed;" functional meaning can vary depending on the context; PRN medications may be given as needed but have a limited number of times within a specified number of hours; PRN may also refer to a nursing position in a healthcare facility

  • Preceptor: An experienced, licensed nurse who supervises nursing students during clinical rotations or new graduates during their first job

  • Preceptorship: A program for new graduates to help acclimate them to a new organization during orientation; nursing preceptorships help nurses gain vital skills needed to care for patients; also a term used for nursing students in their final semester of nursing school who are finishing their clinical hours; often also used in place of clinical hours for graduate students' clinical experiences

  • Oxygen Saturation: Measure of how much hemoglobin is bound to oxygen in the bloodstream, which is an indication of how much oxygen is available to the tissues.

Reference: and

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Medical Terminology Terms

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