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10 common — but confusing — health terms every person needs to know

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When you go to the doctor, it can be helpful to understand what certain words really mean. This list makes a few easier to understand.

The last time you saw your doctor, they might have used some health terms you weren’t familiar with. If you didn’t ask what they meant, you may be wondering if you should have.

“It’s normal not to know what some medical terms mean,” says Tara Ostrom, MD. She is the senior medical director of Optum Primary Care in Arizona. Plus, medical language can be confusing.

You shouldn’t be afraid to ask your doctor about anything. And if your doctor uses a term you don’t understand, it’s okay to speak up.1 They can always explain it a different way.

Ready to brush up on your health care vocabulary? Here are clear explanations of 10 common terms.

Health term #1: Chronic disease

Chronic diseases are health problems that last for a year or longer. (They are sometimes called chronic conditions.) They may be serious and need to be treated with ongoing medical care.2 Chronic diseases can also limit the daily activities you’re able to do. Examples include:2

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Health term #2: Hypertension

Hypertension is another word for a health condition you probably do know: high blood pressure. High blood pressure is when the force of blood that flows through your blood vessels is consistently too high. That’s according to the American Heart Association.3

If you don’t get it under control, it can be dangerous or even fatal. Over time, hypertension can lead to a heart attack, stroke, vision loss and more.4

Health term #3: Upper respiratory infection

This term usually describes a mild, short-term illness that involves the nose, sinuses and throat. “Everything from your neck up is considered upper respiratory,” says Dr. Ostrom. You’re probably familiar with the most common type: the common cold. Other examples include sinus infections and sore throats.

Symptoms may include a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing and a scratchy throat. The infection is commonly viral or bacterial. Colds are caused by a number of different viruses, including the rhinovirus, and are very contagious.5 Strep throat (and some sinus infections6) are caused by bacteria.

Health term #4: Benign vs. malignant

Both of these words are often used when talking about cancer. But there is a big difference in what they mean.

Benign generally means something is not serious, where malignant refers to something that could cause ongoing damage or even death. These words are commonly used when describing tumors. These are lumps or growths inside your body or on your body (such as a mole), according to the American Cancer Society.7,8

Some tumors are cancerous, and some are not. Lumps that aren’t cancerous are called benign. Lumps that are cancerous are malignant. You might also see benign and malignant used to talk about non-cancer-related health issues.

Health term #5: Body mass index

Body mass index, or BMI, is a number that is calculated using your height and weight. It’s a tool that can help doctors figure out your risk of diseases linked to high body fat.9

The healthy weight range for BMI is 18.5 to 24.9.9 If it’s below that, you may be underweight. If the number is between 25 and 29.9, it could mean you’re overweight. Numbers that are 30 and above indicate obesity (having too much body fat).

But BMI has flaws, health experts say. For example, a very muscular person could have a higher BMI but be healthy.9 A person in the “normal” range might still have poor health habits, like not exercising. BMI is just one tool that doctors use to predict disease risk.

Health term #6: Insurance deductible 

A deductible is the amount of money you pay out of pocket before your insurance company pays the rest. So, for example, one type of health plan is called a high-deductible health plan (HDHP). That means you will pay more out of pocket up front than with a traditional insurance plan. But the amount you pay for your health insurance premium every month is usually less, according to HealthCare.gov.10

Health term #7: Medical expense account

A medical expense account is a special account that helps you save money on health care costs.11,12 Two types of these accounts are flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs). Both kinds allow you to set aside money to pay for certain medical expenses that are not covered by your insurance. 

You don’t pay taxes on these dollars. Eligible expenses include copays, over-the-counter medicines, vision and dental expenses and thousands more items — some of which may surprise you. (Find out what you can buy using the qualified medical expense tool from Optum Store.)

FSAs and HSAs are similar in many ways, but there are still important differences. You can only open an FSA if you have a health plan through your employer. You usually need to spend all the money you put into an FSA by the end of your plan year.

You can only open an HSA if you have a HDHP. HSAs can also help you save for the future. They have an investing option to grow your money once you reach a certain balance. You can carry over any remaining balance from year to year. The funds are yours, even if you leave your job, retire or choose not to have an HDHP anymore.

Health term #8: Inpatient vs. outpatient

Inpatient and outpatient refer to different types of medical care in a hospital or other facility such as a skilled nursing facility. Inpatient care is when you are admitted to the hospital and stay overnight.13 Inpatient care is usually for childbirth, major surgeries, or serious illnesses or medical issues.

Outpatient care is health care treatment where you don’t need to stay in a hospital or other medical facility.14 It is sometimes called ambulatory care. It could be a procedure such as a colonoscopy, a visit to the doctor’s office or a trip to an emergency room where you go home the same day.

Health term #9: Inflammation

This word seems to be used all the time because it’s related to so many serious health conditions. Inflammation can be an essential part of your body’s healing process. It’s generally categorized as either short term (acute) or long term (chronic). And inflammation may be good or bad for you.

Acute inflammation can be your body’s natural response to a sudden infection or injury. Let’s say you cut your finger. Your body will send inflammatory cells to the injured spot to help it heal. When your finger swells and gets red, that’s the inflammatory response at work.

Chronic inflammation is the other kind. And it’s not good to have. It’s when inflammation lingers in your body for a long time, which can lead to many serious health problems. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, chronic inflammation increases your risk of the following conditions:15

Health term #10: NSAIDs

NSAID is an abbreviation for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.16 It’s a type of medicine used to treat symptoms such as fever, muscle pain, arthritis and migraines. You can buy NSAIDs over the counter or get them by prescription.

Common over-the-counter NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin (Bayer) and naproxen (Aleve). NSAIDs can also be prescribed by a doctor, usually at a higher dose. Prescription NSAIDS may be covered by your insurance, says Dr. Ostrom.

It’s worth noting that NSAIDs can be dangerous for certain people. These include if:17

  • You have a history of stomach ulcers
  • You have high blood pressure, asthma, or a history of kidney or liver disease
  • You’re pregnant
  • You have cardiovascular disease or risk factors for heart disease
  • You are taking certain medications
  • You are younger than age 18

You can buy NSAIDS at the Optum Store — all from the comfort of home. Start exploring.


  1. American Academy of Family Physicians. Getting the Most Out of Your Doctor Appointment. Last updated March 2023. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Chronic Diseases. Last reviewed July 21, 2022. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  3. American Heart Association. The Facts About High Blood Pressure. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  4. American Heart Association. Health Threats from High Blood Pressure. Last reviewed March 4, 2022. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  5. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Common cold. Last updated November 16, 2022. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sinus Infection (Sinusitis). Last reviewed August 27, 2019. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  7. American Cancer Society. What is cancer? Last updated February 14, 2022. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  8. American Cancer Society. What is melanoma skin cancer? Last updated August 14, 2019. Accessed September 21, 2023.
  9. National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. Assessing your weight and health risk. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  10. Healthcare.gov. High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP). Accessed September 12, 2023.
  11. Healthcare.gov. Health Savings Account (HSA). Accessed September 12, 2023.
  12. Healthcare.gov. Using a Flexible Spending Account (FSA). Accessed September 12, 2023.
  13. Healthcare.gov. Inpatient care. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  14. Healthcare.gov. Hospital outpatient care. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  15. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Inflammation. Last reviewed April 28, 2021. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  16. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. NSAIDs. Last updated December 31, 2020. Accessed September 12, 2023.
  17. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. What are NSAIDs? Last reviewed February 2023. Accessed October 2, 2023.

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