Medical Abbreviations

As a pharmacy tech for five and a half years, I got quite familiar with certain medical abbreviations. Obviously, there are numerous ones we didn’t use much if at all in a pharmacy, and I’ve not worked in a pharmacy for nearly six years now, so this is not intended to be a comprehensive list (although here is a link to some common medical abbreviations, which I would suggest bookmarking, for future reference if need be). There are also numerous abbreviations (why is that such a long word?!) that are birth-specific, that I’d never heard of until I became pregnant, or even after I had given birth. Here are some common ones, in no specific order — mostly just as I think of them — that may be useful in general and particularly in birth. Some of these may not be “official” but you might see them popping up in some forums.

  • ROM — rupture of membranes, breaking the amniotic sac, “My water just broke!”; also SROM and AROM, for “spontanous” and “artificial” ROM, respectively — the first is when your water breaks on its own; the second is when somebody else breaks your water
  • PROM — can mean either “preterm” or “prelabor” ROM; or PPROM which is both
  • VBB — vaginal breech birth
  • u/s — ultrasound
  • c/s — c-section, cesarean section
  • pph — postpartum hemorrhage — losing too much blood after giving birth, may be mild or severe, even deadly
  • pit — pitocin, artificial oxytocin (aka syntocin in some countries), given either as a single shot after birth to help prevent pph, or given to induce labor or augment it
  • hbp, HTN — high blood pressure, hypertension
  • GD — gestational diabetes
  • DM — diabetes mellitus (but on a cough syrup, it’s dextromethorphan)
  • pih — pregnancy-induced hypertension
  • p/e or p-e — preeclampsia (may also be used in some discussions to indicate hbp, maternal hypertension, eclampsia, pih, toxemia, and probably a few other terms which are similar, outdated, or synonymous — not everyone uses clinical terms properly)
  • BOW — bag of waters, amniotic sac, the membranes which surround the fetus and are filled with amniotic fluid
  • pp — postpartum
  • ppd — postpartum depression
  • ppp — postpartum psychosis
  • ctx– contractions
  • sx — symptoms
  • abx — antibiotics
  • rx — prescription or treatment (may occasionally be used as a shorthand way to say pharmacist or pharmacy, depending on how hurried someone is)
  • tx — treatment
  • fx — fracture
  • hx — history
  • epi — may be short for either epidural or episiotomy, depending on the context
  • PO — by mouth
  • npo — non per os, nothing by mouth
  • PR — rectally (per rectum)
  • PV — vaginally (per vagina) [not to be confused with…PNV]
  • PNV — prenatal vitamins
  • pt — patient
  • d/c or dc — discontinue
  • t/f or tf — transfer (either meaning the mother planned a homebirth and went to the hospital, or was moved from one room in the hospital to another)
  • L&D — labor and delivery
  • LDR — labor and delivery and recovery room (the mom stays in one room for labor, birth, and the immediate postpartum; may also mean that she stays there until hospital discharge, but she may be transferred to a “postpartum” room)
  • LDRP — labor, delivery, recovery, and postpartum room — the mom stsays in the same room her whole hospital stay
  • NICU — neonatal intensive care unit
  • FTP — failure to progress (also called by many natural-birthers, “Failure to be patient”, or not giving the laboring mom enough time to dilate completely or birth naturally)
  • GTT — glucose tolerance test
  • HA — headache
  • fht — fetal heart tones
  • fhr — fetal heart-rate
  • EFM — electronic fetal monitoring (may also mean external fetal monitoring), usually continuous, with belts across your belly, one to hear the baby’s heartbeat, the other to feel your ctx
  • IFM — internal fetal monitoring — a sharp wire is sort of screwed into the fetus’s head; you must have ROM prior to this; sometimes done because the EFM isn’t picking up the fhr correctly
  • LMP — last menstrual period, used for dating the pregnancy, which officially starts about two weeks before the child is even conceived
  • NKDA, NDA — no (known) drug allergy
  • OP — occiput posterior, (a.k.a. “sunny side up” — but only if the mom is on her back — if the mom is standing, the baby won’t be facing “up” towards her abdomen; and if she is hands-and-knees, the OP baby will be facing down towards her tummy. That’s why both my babies were born facing up, although they were not OP — my position was not “stranded beetle” or lithotomy or any other lying-on-my-back position, so my “face-down” babies were actually born face-up). The back of the fetal head is towards the mom’s posterior, which is typically associated with a longer and/or harder labor; typically even when the mom labors with the baby in a posterior position, the baby will rotate and be born anterior (OA — back of the head towards the mom’s front). Since the back of the head, or the crown, is the smallest diameter (and has fontanels which can be squeezed together to be smaller), it facilitates the easiest birth; the front of the head, forehead, or brow are all much bigger and cannot be squeezed smaller. Other variations include adding an L or R or T to designate left or right or transverse — LOA, LOP, ROA, ROP, etc.
  • SGA/LGA — small/large for gestational age
  • IUGR — intrauterine growth restriction/retardation
  • SOB — shortness of breath; occasionally used on some email lists to refer to obstetricians, especially OBs who are SOBs
  • DOB — date of birth
  • MOB/FOB — mother/father of baby

Now for some that are more specifically prescription-related — since Latin was the language of the learned, many, many medical abbreviations are derived from Latin, or are acronyms from the original Latin words. If you’ve learned French, Spanish, Italian, or some other Latin language, you’ll probably have a leg up in these; otherwise, you’ll just have to muddle through.

  • sig — literally means to write on the label; as a pharmacy tech, we used it to refer to the directions as written on the prescription — for instance, if I couldn’t make out what the doctor had scrawled or scribbled, I’d say that I couldn’t understand “the sig”
  • x — for
  • n/v — nausea and vomiting
  • prn or ad lib — as needed
  • ud/tud/tad — (take) as directed — please when you see this on a prescription, make sure that you know from the doctor how to take it, unless the Rx is for a dose-pack (pills that are dispensed in the necessary quantity with the directions written on the packaging — some pills, such as corticosteroids for inflammation are given with 4 pills the first day, 3 the next, and so forth); it was not uncommon for us to give a prescription to somebody with the label “take as directed” — which was all the info we had — and for them to ask us how they were supposed to take it. The doctor didn’t tell us how the patient was supposed to take it. So, we’d have to call the doctor’s office and get the instructions — if we were lucky, it wouldn’t take too long. Often, we were not lucky. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” — make sure you know the directions before you leave the doctor’s office, and have it either written down or in a voice memo or something
  • ac — before eating
  • pc — after eating (I remembered this as “post consumption” and ac as “ante [or before, like to ante up in a poker game] consumption)
  • c — with (probably where the Spanish con or “with” comes from — the Latin may be con too, but I’m not sure)
  • s — without (think of the French sans)
  • iv — intravenously
  • im — intramuscularly
  • sq — subcutaneously
  • sl — sublingual (under the tongue); [I’ll put in here “buccal” which I rarely saw, but understood it to mean that it was dissolved in the mouth or cheek]
  • bid — twice a day
  • tid — three times a day
  • qid — four times a day
  • hs — at bedtime — the Hour of Sleep
  • achs — before meals and at bedtime
  • q — every
  • h — hour(s)
  • d — day
  • so… qh = every hour; q4h = every four hours; q6h = every 6 hours; qd = every day; qod = every other day, etc.
  • ml — millileter (an eye drop bottle may contain 20ml of fluid in it)
  • mg — milligram (Keflex is dispensed in 500 mg capsules); some people may use mgm, but that is unusual, and may be confusing as it might make some believe it’s micrograms
  • mcg — micrograms (sometimes also written with the “m” in a funny script almost looking like a “u”; this is the Greek letter “m”; can be very confusing if written hastily… as most prescriptions are. The good news is that most drugs dispensed in a pharmacy will not be confused by milli- or micro- because they only come one way. “Micro” means one-millionth of a gram; “milli” means one-thousandth of a gram. Cytotec, for example, comes in micrograms — in tablets of 100mcg or 200mcg. If a doctor inadvertantly writes that his patient is to take 200mg of Cytotec qid, that would definitely be an overdose because 1mg is 1000mcg (or 5 200mcg tablets), so 200mg qid would be 5000 tablets four times a day. No pharmacy in the world would dispense that, so that is one safeguard. Unfortunately, when a medication has to be prepared by adding a certain amount of medication into an IV solution, and each person gets a different kind, and an infant may receive the same medication than an adult would — only in a much smaller strength, of course — then it becomes much easier for human error to creep in — whether through the doctor who scribbled the Rx, the pharmacist or pharmacy tech who read it and prepared it, or the nurse who was to run it into the IV. I forget who it was, but in this past year, a Hollywood actor’s premature twins were given an overdose of some medication (I think it was Heparin, a blood thinner), because of a clerical or human error like this, in which it is possible that a decimal point was misplaced or overlooked entirely. If I remember correctly, they were given an adult dose, although they only weighed a few pounds. In their case, there was no known permanent harm done, but not everyone is so fortunate.
  • gt, gtt, gtts — drop, drops (don’t ask me why a word as small as “drop” needs an abbreviation — especially one that is hardly any smaller, and makes no sense whatsoever!)
  • OS/OD/OU — left eye/right eye/both eyes (lovely Latin again — the S is similar to or is “sinister” [sorry all you lefties! think “Southpaw,” if it makes you feel better]; and the D is something like “direct” — I know in Spanish right is “derecha” or something similar); while we only used S or D with eyes and ears (AD/AS/AU — right ear, left ear, both ears), it could presumably be used for anything that has “left” and “right.” However, it is possible that they would use R or Rt for “right” and L for “left.” (OD can also, of course, mean “overdose”, so it depends on the context)

And don’t forget the elemental abbreviations:

  • Fe — iron
  • K — potassium
  • O2 — oxygen
  • CO2 — Carbon Dioxide (yeah, I know, not an element, but close enough)

And of course, good ol’ Roman Numerals! — i = 1; ii = 2; iii = 3; iv = 4; v = 5, etc.; also used for numbering Olympic events and Super Bowls. Often Roman numerals will be used as an additional safeguard (as well as to help keep a druggie from altering a prescription). The number “4” could easily be changed to “40”, but “IV” is not so easily changed into “XL”; and a doctor may scribble so sloppily that a digit may be difficult to read, but having the Roman numerals beside it makes it more understandable. Sometimes.

Okay — which ones did I forget? — feel free to add them in the comments section!


7 Responses

  1. Love it! I’m printing off this article right now!! I have way too many gaps in my knowledge.

  2. Ok, Duh!, I forgot…
    VBAC — vaginal birth after cesarean, with all of its cousins — UBAC (unassisted), HBAC (home), VBAmC (multiple), VBA2C, etc. (Vaginal Birth after 2 C-sections, etc.), 3VBA2C (3rd vaginal birth after 2 C-sections), CBAC (Cesarean birth after previous cesarean)….

    TOL — trial of labor

    TOLAC — trial of labor after Cesarean

    UR — uterine rupture

  3. […] hospital records Posted on January 26, 2009 by Kathy In a previous post, I wrote a list of various abbreviations that may come in handy in figuring out prescriptions or your medical records. Now I’d like to […]

  4. In Latin, “dexter” is right and “sinister” is left. It’s amazing in how many different languages the word for “left” has evil connotations.

  5. UC

    UC — Unassisted Childbirth
    IBOW — Intact Bag of Waters (amniotic sac hasn’t broken or been broken)
    FHTs — Fetal Heart Tones (baby’s heartbeat)

  6. Does anyone know the medical abbrievation for “Pregnant Woman”?

    I’m doing a course but can’t find the answer to this one.


    • Not an abbreviation, no; but a pregnant woman is considered a “gravida”, being pregnant is called “gravid”, a first-time pregnant woman is a “primigravida”, while a woman pregnant for the second time or more is a multi-gravida.

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