John Larrysson's Column: English Problems in Medicine

When people talk to doctors there are many potential language confusions. I have heard people describe an illness as both acute and chronic thinking that they mean a serious illness. These words are opposites. An acute illness is sudden, such as being hit by a car. A chronic illness is one that has developed over a long time and recovery will likely take a long time. A person can have both of these opposites, but only in special situations. The acute damage from a car accident might cause very long term chronic problems. The words acute and chronic refer to time, not severity.

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The flu (short for influenza) and the common cold are very different diseases caused by different viruses. Both may include a cough, sore throat and runny or stuffy nose. A cold usually lasts two or three days and is not fatal. A flu may also include a high fever, muscle aches, headaches and tiredness. A flu generally lasts for two weeks and may require hospitalisation. Unfortunately the two words get confused for each other.

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Antibiotics are often thought of as miracle pills that will cure anything. In fact they only slow the growth of (and in doing so indirectly kill) bacteria. They have no effect at all on the flu or the common cold which are caused by viruses. Note: Many bacteria are developing resistance to our antibiotics. Only take antibiotics if prescribed by a doctor and as instructed. Finish the course of antibiotics, even if you start to feel better.

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"The dosage should be 3.0 mg per mouth daily." We only have one mouth. In medicine per is a different word, meaning: through or by means of. Outside of medicine (and Latin class) per means for each. Examples: per month, per person... It is better for doctors to be cautious about using Latin words when talking to patients. For example: The Latin abbreviation hs on a prescription means hora somni. A doctor should keep such an abbreviation in the medical records and tell the patient to take the medicine before going to sleep.

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The word nil means zero or none. The instruction nil per mouth means not to feed the patient, or not to feed them by mouth. They might have a cut or trauma in the mouth and require feeding by a nasal tube, not feeding or intravenous feeding. As an instruction, it is not clear.

SOB in medical jargon is an acronym that stands for shortness of breath. In regular English it stands for an insult questioning the morality of a person's family.

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A mass is any tissue clustered together more densely than the surrounding tissue. A mass might be felt as a lump under the skin. Some might be cancer, but not most. Some people, who watch too many hospital-TV-shows think that the word mass always means cancer.

There are many medical words that can be confused. The word cite, which sounds like sight, means to mention the source of information. A doctor might cite a patient's family history. The words oral and aural sound the same, the first refers to the mouth, the second to the ear. The prostate is a gland in the male body. However being prostrate means to be lying on the ground helplessly.

If you do not understand what a doctor has said, ask them to explain. Do not assume anything or be afraid to ask questions.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE:Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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