A to Z of NHS health writing

These are some of the words and phrases we use to make our content about health and the NHS easy to understand.

We try to use the words we know that people use themselves when they talk about their problems and when they search for information on the internet.

A

absorb

We prefer to use “take in”.

affects

It’s alright to use “affects” but in some contexts, for example with medicines, it can be better to say that “something changes the way something else works”.

Check a dictionary if you’re not sure of the difference between “affect” and “effect”.

ageing

Not “aging”.

alternative

We generally use “different” or “other”.

An exception is “complementary and alternative medicines”.

Alzheimer’s disease

We capitalise the names of conditions that start with a proper name, like Alzheimer’s disease. Note the apostrophe.

ampersand (&)

Avoid using an ampersand, except in A&E. Use “and” instead.

antenatal

One word without a hyphen.

apply

If we are talking about a medicine, we prefer “use”, “put on” or “rub in”.

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B

bacteria

People often aren’t interested in the kind of bacteria that caused their problem. They want to know what to do about it. Only mention the name of the bacteria (full or short name) if your audience (users) need it.

We do include the names of bacteria, for example, when we are writing for a more specialist audience, like when we’re explaining science news Behind the Headlines.

If you give the full Latin name of a bacterium, capitalise the first word (“Staphylococcus aureus”) but put the shortened “staphylococcus” in lower case.

Do not use italics.

baseline

One word.

bottle feeding

Two words.

bowel movement

See poo.

Braille

Starts with a capital letter.

breast milk

Two words.

breastfeeding

One word.

BSE

See CJD.

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C

caesarean

Lower case.

CJD

We use CJD – or variant CJD (vCJD) as the human form of BSE.

Use full name “Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease” when you first mention CJD.

We do not use “mad cow disease” or BSE.

clinical commissioning groups (CCGs)

Lower case, except when you are referring to a particular CCG. For example: Anytown Clinical Commissioning Group.

condition

We use “condition”, “problem” or “illness”.

We avoid words like “disease” and “disorder” as they can sound negative. But we do use these words in the names of specific diseases or disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or terms like “tropical diseases”.

See the section on conditions in Inclusive language.

CT scan

You don’t need to spell it out. The abbreviation is fine.

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D

degrees (temperature)

We use C for centigrade or Celsius – for example, 16C or −4C.

Do not include the degree symbol (°).

We are working on how we refer to fever and will publish guidance on this soon.

diabetic

We don’t talk about people as “diabetic”. We say they have diabetes. See the section on conditions in Inclusive language.

We do use “diabetic” in phrases like “diabetic eye screening”.

dietitian

Not dietician.

diuretics

We don’t call them “water tablets”. We explain that diuretics are “tablets that make you pee more”.

DNA

It’s OK to use the abbreviation.

doctor

We mostly use “GP”. But where someone may see either a GP or another health professional, for example in hospital, we use “doctor”.

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E

eardrop, eardrum, earlobe, earwax

All of them one word.

eg

eg can sometimes be read aloud as “egg” by screen readers. We prefer “for example” or “such as” or “like” or “including” – whichever works best.

epileptic

We don’t talk about people as “epileptics”. We say they have epilepsy. See the section on conditions in Inclusive language.

equivalent

We use “equal to”.

etc

Avoid etc. Try using “for example” or “such as” or “like” or “including” instead.

exceed

We use “more than”.

excessive

We use “too much”.

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F

5 A Day

Note the number and capital letters. This is the campaign which encourages people to eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day.

faeces

See poo.

flu

Not “influenza”. No apostrophe.

flu jab or flu vaccine

We sometimes use “flu jab” for adults, because people search for this. But we use “flu vaccine” for children. (The child vaccine is a spray.)

People who are looking for information about flu vaccination in pregnancy search for “jab”.

For the annual flu vaccination programme, we use the term “flu vaccine” as that covers children and adults.

foot and mouth disease

Lower case.

formulations

Rather than talking about different medicines formulations, we talk about “different types” (for example, of hydrocortisone) or “different ways” of using a medicine.

foundation trust

Lower case, unless you are giving the full name of a foundation trust. For example: Anytown NHS Foundation Trust.

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G

GP

Where someone may see either a GP or another health professional, for example in hospital, use “doctor”.

gullet

We use “food pipe”.

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H

healthcare

One word.

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I

ie

We try not to use “ie” (which means “that is” or “that means”). You can usually write your sentence in another way.

immunisation

Only use “immunisation” for the Public Health England (PHE) immunisation programme or Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

We use vaccination otherwise.

injection

You can use “injection” or “jab” for the injection of vaccine.

inpatient

One word. Like outpatient.

interaction

For medicines, we say “it does not mix with”.

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J

jab

You can use “injection” or “jab” for the injection of vaccine.

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L

licensed for

For medicines, we say “can be used for” or is or isn’t “officially approved for”.

lifelong

One word.

lip-reading

With a hyphen.

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M

mad cow disease

We use CJD.

medication

We use "medicine".

microgram

Write microgram in full.

Do not shorten it to mcg.

It helps to explain that a microgram is 1,000 times smaller than a milligram (mg).

If people might come across the microgram symbol, for example on their medicines packet, we add the following when we first mention micrograms: "The word microgram is sometimes written with the Greek symbol μ followed by the letter g (μg).” (We explain that it’s a Greek symbol so that people who use screen readers understand it when they hear an unexpected sound.)

We don't use μg as an abbreviation in text that follows.

milk

In “cows’ milk” and “goats’ milk”, the apostrophe comes after the “s”.

In “sheep’s milk”, the apostrophe comes before the “s”, because “sheep” is plural.

We write “breast milk” as two words.

morning after pill

Lower case without hyphens. It can be “emergency contraception”.

MRI scan

The abbreviation is fine.

mucus and mucous

Mucus is a noun. Mucous is an adjective.

Example: If you have allergic rhinitis, the inside layer of your nose (the mucous membrane) may become swollen and you may produce a lot of mucus.

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N

nausea

We prefer “feeling sick“. You may want put “nausea” in brackets afterwards: feeling sick (nausea).

NHS

We don’t usually spell out “National Health Service”. It’s fine to use the abbreviation.

We refer to it as “the NHS”, unless we’re using NHS as an adjective, for example “NHS services”.

normally

We use “usually”.

“Normally” in a health context can make people feel they aren’t “normal”.

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O

occur

Avoid “occur”. Try other words, like “happen”, or reword your sentence.

For example: instead of “Symptoms only occur in children under the age of 2”, we say: “Only children under the age of 2 get symptoms”.

OK

It’s OK to use OK.

oral

We use the word “mouth”. For example, we say “mouth cancer” rather than “oral cancer”.

If we’re talking about taking medicines, we say “by mouth” or “that you swallow”.

oral contraceptives

We prefer “contraceptive pills”.

organisations

We use a singular verb for an organisation. For example: “The NHS in England deals with over 1 million patients every 36 hours.” Or “The World Health Organization says …”.

We use the pronoun “it” for the NHS.

Organisations don’t do things. The people in organisations do. So we say: “Tell hospital staff in advance if you can’t attend your appointment and they will try to arrange a new one”, rather than “… the hospital will arrange a new one”.

outpatient

One word. Like inpatient.

over the counter or OTC

We say “medicine you buy (from a pharmacy or shop)”.

We put pharmacies first, ahead of supermarkets and shops.

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P

pee

We use the nouns “pee” and “urine”. We know that everyone can understand “pee”, including people who find reading difficult. Most people also understand and search for “urine”, for example in phrases like “blood in urine”.

We don’t use “wee” because it can confuse people who use voice technologies or screen readers.

We use “pee” for the verb, not “urinate” or “pass urine”. We know that the people who use NHS digital services talk about and search for “peeing more often” and “peeing at night”.

persist

We use “carry on” or “keep going”.

poo

We mostly use “poo”, rather than “stool”. We know that everyone can understand “poo”, including people who find reading difficult.

We don’t use “opening your bowels” or “bowel movements”.

We sometimes use the words “stool” or “bowel” when people will hear their GP use them. But we will explain the term or phrase. For example:

  • “a sample of poo (stool sample)”
  • “Bowel incontinence can affect people in different ways. You may have a problem if you have sudden urges to poo that you can't control.”

practice

"Practice" is the noun, as in “GP practice”.

"Practise" is a verb. For example: “Practise pelvic floor exercises”.

pre-school

With a hyphen.

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R

radiographer or radiologist

Radiographers take X-rays. Radiologists read them.

reduce pain

We say “help with pain” or “ease the pain”.

reduced kidney function

We say “kidneys that don’t work well”.

risk and risk factors

We prefer “chance” to “risk” when we’re writing for the public.

We try not to talk about “risk factors” and instead explain them some other way.

We do use “risk” and risk factors when we are writing for a more specialist audience, for example when we’re explaining science news (Behind the Headlines).

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S

safe and safer

Beware of saying “safe drinking” or “safe sex”.

It’s hard to know what is really “safe” so we talk about “safer sex” or “safer drinking”. That suggests that people can lower but not necessarily get rid of the risk altogether.

safety precaution

We say “for safety”.

seek

We say “ask for”.

sexual health clinic

We use “sexual health clinic”, not “STI clinic”.

Sexual health clinics can offer different services. So, when we mention them for the first time and are talking about STIs, we sometimes add that they may also be called “GUM clinics”. When we are talking about contraception, we sometimes add that they may also be called “family planning or contraception clinics”.

See also STI.

sick

We use “feeling sick” instead of “nausea”, but you may want to put “nausea” in brackets afterwards: feeling sick (nausea).

We use “being sick” instead of “vomiting”. Again, you may want to put “vomiting” in brackets afterwards: being sick (vomiting).

We do use “vomiting” in phrases like “vomiting blood”.

We use “vomit” as the noun. For example, “blood in your vomit”.

side effects

Two words.

We say that people may “get” or “have” side effects, not “develop” or “experience” them.

Check a dictionary if you’re not sure of the difference between “affect” and “effect”.

STI

You might want to spell out “sexually transmitted infection” the first time you mention it. Otherwise it’s fine to use the abbreviation STI.

We talk about “a” sexually transmitted infection but “an” STI.

We don’t use the terms “sexually transmitted disease” or “STD”.

See also sexual health clinic.

stool

See poo.

suffering from

We don’t use “suffering from”. We talk about people having or living with a disability or condition. See the section on disabilities and conditions in Inclusive language.

symptoms

We say that people may “get” or “have” symptoms, not “develop” or “experience” them.

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T

tranquillise, tranquilliser

Note the double “ll”. We use the British spelling with “s”, not “z”.

try to

We prefer “try to” to “try and”.

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U

unplanned

Use “unplanned” rather than “unwanted” when talking about pregnancy.

urinary tract infections

We use “urinary tract infections (UTIs)”, not “water infections”.

urine

See pee.

uterus

We prefer “womb”.

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V

vaccination

We use “vaccination” for national programmes (not “immunisation programme”). For example: NHS vaccination schedule, flu vaccination programme.

Most people search for “vaccination”, not “immunisation”.

“Vaccination” includes injections and oral or nasal spray. People become “immune” after vaccination.

vaccine

We use “vaccine” for the virus, bacteria or toxin dose. For example: 6‑in‑1 vaccine, HPV vaccine.

The exception is the “flu jab”. We sometimes use “flu jab” for adults, because people search for this. But we use “flu vaccine” for children, because the child vaccine is a spray.

For the annual flu vaccination programme, we use the term “flu vaccine” as that covers children and adults.

vomiting

We use “being sick” instead of “vomiting”. You may want to put “vomiting” in brackets afterwards: being sick (vomiting).

We do use “vomiting” in phrases like “vomiting blood”.

We use “vomit” as the noun. For example, “blood in your vomit”.

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W

walk-in centre

Not walk in centre or Walk-In Centre (unless it’s the name of a particular centre).

water infections

We use “urinary tract infections (UTIs)” instead.

water tablets

We don’t use “water tablets”. We explain that diuretics are “tablets that make you pee more”.

wellbeing

One word.

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X

X-ray

With a capital X.

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Z

zimmer frame

Two words, lower case.

When we talk about “walking frames”, we also mention “zimmer frames”. We have found that older people are more likely to know them as “zimmer frames”.

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Discuss

Please get in touch if you have any evidence to share or changes to suggest.

Updated: January 2019