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Nursing Student’s Guide to Nursing Terminology

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated February 15, 2023
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Discover common nursing terms that are a crucial part of your new nursing language.
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Nursing student taking notesCredit: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

It may seem that nurses and doctors speak their own language. It can take some time to learn the different charting shortcuts, like nursing abbreviations and acronyms for imaging, testing, medications, and diagnosis.

In addition to these nursing terms, nurses also use slang terms during shift change or charting. These common nursing terms are a crucial part of your new nursing language that helps speed communication.

Let’s dive into a list of nursing terms you’ll use throughout your career.

General Nursing Terms

  • Charge Nurse: A nurse who supervises the clinical 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 one to 10 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
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Nursing Acronyms

  • Within Normal Limit (WNL): This indicates the criteria being evaluated is typical or within the range of what is normally expected for the criteria tested, such as reflexes or pupillary response
  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOP): Describes the typical way a nursing procedure should be conducted, which should lead to an expected response
  • Over the Counter (OTC): Medications found on the shelves in a pharmacy that do not require a prescription
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Equipment used to protect nurses from the spread of pathogens, such as gowns, gloves, and masks
  • Blood Pressure (BP): The measure of force against the arterial walls, which is within a normal range in a healthy individual; blood pressure that is too high or too low indicates a possible medical emergency
  • Do Not Resuscitate (DNR): The designation is given when an individual decides they do not want extraordinary measures taken if they have a cardiac arrest or another failure of bodily systems
  • Electronic Health Records (EHR): The electronic or digital chart that is a record of what happened to the patient, including medical examination, test results, diagnosis, medications, and a record of activities
  • Complete Bed Rest (CBR): An order for the patient to remain in bed, including being unable to get up to use the bathroom; patients will use a urinal and bedpan for elimination
  • Nothing By Mouth (NPO): Patients are allowed nothing to eat or drink, including brushing their teeth
  • Out of Bed (OOB): This abbreviation may be used in conjunction with the number of times the patient is expected to be out of bed and in a chair or ambulating to encourage healing
  • Airway, Breathing, Circulation (ABC): The sequence of evaluation and intervention during an emergency; first, establish an open airway, ensure the patient is breathing, check circulation, and perform CPR if needed

Nursing Tools

  • Hat: A plastic container that fits into the toilet to collect and measure urine; looks like an upside-down hat
  • Sharps Container: A red hazardous materials box intended to house needles and other one-time-use sharp instruments for disposal
  • Banana Bag: This is a type of intravenous drip bag that gets its name from the distinctive yellow color of the fluid, which comes from a collection of B vitamins; treatment is used to normalize vitamins and electrolytes in patients with alcohol use disorder
  • Stethoscope: A medical instrument used to hear a patient’s heartbeat or take blood pressure; digital technology can help amplify the audio and transmit it to a computer
  • Tourniquet: A tight band that can be fashioned from any material used to stem the flow of blood after an injury or medical procedure; more commonly, a phlebotomist uses a tourniquet to slow blood flow to engorge a vein while drawing blood
  • Catheter: A flexible hollow tube used to drain urine from the bladder
  • Pulse Oximeter: A small digital device that clips to the end of a patient’s finger and uses a cold light source to analyze and measure oxygen saturation in the blood

Common Medical Tests and Procedures

  • Spinal Tap: A medical procedure using a thin needle inserted in the lumbar region of the spine between two vertebrae into the subarachnoid space to collect cerebrospinal fluid for analysis
  • Ultrasound: An imaging test that uses sound waves to create a picture of structures inside the body; does not use radiation and can be used during pregnancy
  • Basic Metabolic Panel (BMP): A blood test that measures chemical balance and metabolism; includes a test for glucose, calcium, sodium, potassium, chloride, carbon dioxide, creatinine, and blood urea nitrogen (BUN)
  • Vaccination: Administration of a vaccine, by a shot, orally, or nasal spray, with the intent of stimulating the body’s immune response to provide protection against a harmful virus
  • Saline Lock: An intravenous port that can be left in place without an intravenous bag or line and used episodically for fluid or medication administration
  • IV Therapy: Intravenous administration of fluid that contains medication or vitamins and minerals
  • Urinalysis: A urine test used to detect a range of urinary tract disorders, such as a urinary tract infection, kidney disease, or diabetes

Patient Descriptions

  • Walkie-talkie: A patient who is at the end of their hospital stay and needs minimal care; they can use the bathroom, get in and out of bed, feed themself, and have a low fall risk
  • Total: A patient who needs maximum care; may include gastric or tube feeding, intravenous lines, urinary catheter, and tracheostomy; needs to be turned every two hours or more and require frequent monitoring
  • Frequent Flyer: A patient who is admitted frequently to the hospital
  • Alert: A patient who is aware of people around them and responds to the environment; does not imply they are oriented, which means they know who they are, where they are, time, and date
  • Ambulate: To walk
  • Tube Index: The number of tubes in a patient, including urinary catheter, intravenous lines, central line, tracheostomy, and chest tube

Nursing Slang

  • Peds: Short for pediatrics; caring for children
  • STAT: From the Latin word “statim;” means without delay or immediately
  • Crash cart: Cart of supplies used specifically for emergencies when a patient “crashes” or has a sudden adverse change in health, such as a cardiac arrest or drug overdose
  • Sundowner/Sundowning: A phenomenon in patients with dementia where their behavior worsens after dark, including becoming combative, delusional, confused, and agitated
  • Code Brown: A situation where a patient had a bowel movement outside of the toilet
  • Coding: A patient in cardiac arrest
  • Tachy: Tachycardia or rapid heart rate
  • Fluid overload: Describes a patient with too much fluid in their bloodstream, also called hypervolemia; can be caused by several conditions including heart failure, kidney failure, or liver cirrhosis
  • Nurslings: Student nurses
  • DT-ing: delirium tremens; describes a patient who has a rapid onset of confusion triggered by alcohol withdrawal
  • Milk of amnesia: Infusion of propofol, which is a creamy white anesthetic used to induce anesthesia rapidly but is known to have a toxic effect in young children and the elderly
  • Waste: Describes when a nurse witnesses narcotics being discarded according to hospital or clinic policy

Frequently Asked Questions About Nursing Terminology

What are the 7 standards of nursing?

The 7 standards of nursing practice are:

  1. Thinks critically and analyzes nursing practice
  2. Engages in therapeutic and professional relationships
  3. Maintains the capability for practice
  4. Comprehensively conducts assessments
  5. Develops a plan for nursing practice
  6. Provides safe, appropriate, and responsive quality nursing practice
  7. Evaluates outcomes to inform nursing practice

What are the levels of care?

This is the level of care required to meet an individual’s physical and emotional needs. Examples include:

  1. Acute care
  2. Subacute care
  3. Skilled
  4. Transitional
  5. Hospice

What are the rights of medication use?

This common nursing term refers to a list nurses use to reduce medication errors, confirming the five rights of medication administration:

  1. The right medication
  2. The right patient
  3. The right time
  4. The right dose
  5. The right route

What are the levels of triage?

Triage nurses in an emergency room categorize patients according to how urgently they require medical care. There are five categories in the Emergency Severity Index, which is used in up to 90% of emergency rooms in the U.S. It uses an algorithmic approach to determine the severity of care:

Level 1: Immediate, life-threatening (cardiac arrest)
Level 2: Emergency, potentially life-threatening (difficulty breathing, major accident)
Level 3: Urgent, not life-threatening (abdominal pain)
Level 4: Semi-urgent, not life-threatening (earache or cut requiring sutures)
Level 5: Nonurgent, (minor symptoms or prescription renewal)

Related Pages

Page last reviewed January 28, 2023

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