A Brit’s Guide to Health Matters in the U.S.: Learning the Lingo

Orlando Bloom needs to work on his bed side manner in The Good Doctor. (Fastnet Films)

Orlando Bloom needs to work on his bedside manner in The Good Doctor. (Fastnet Films)

As Brits quickly discover, there are huge differences between the American and British healthcare systems. For most people here, there’s no “free” health care in the U.S., but often, a mountain of paperwork involved with each doctor visit or procedure. What is not immediately appreciated is the equally huge difference in terminology, and if you’re not au fait with it, things can get quite confusing.

First of all, sick and ill have the opposite meaning. If you’re sick, you’re not necessarily throwing up; you probably have a fairly serious ailment, and lots of sympathy from friends and family. If it’s whispered that you’re very sick, you’re probably on your last legs. The action of being sick (to mean throwing up) is heard here as well. If you’re ill, on the other hand, you’re temporarily sick to your stomach and possibly heaving over a bucket. The noun sick, as in “there was sick on the carpet” isn’t used either; it’s vomit, puke, throw up, or variations thereof.

Half of the diseases and maladies you know also acquire new names in the States. Glandular fever becomes mono (short for mononucleosis) and Motor Neuron Disease is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Although strep (streptococcus) throat is common in both countries, it’s usually called a sore throat in the U.K. and many British doctors just leave it to disappear on its own. If you have that sore throat in the U.S., there’s a quick and simple strep test (performed by a qualified nurse or doctor) that involves sticking a giant Q-tip (cotton bud) down your throat, gagging like a two year old, then waiting 5 minutes for a yea or nay. If it’s strep and your doc decides to treat it, it’s often with a Z pack (pronounced zee pack), which is a course of antibiotics named Zithromax.  We Brits also don’t use the term staph (staphylococcal) infection quite as much as Americans, but replace it with MRSA or cellulitis and we know exactly what’s going on.

One thing I used to worry about when walking barefoot at public pools, was catching verrucas. Many Americans will think you’re referring to Veruca Salt, the character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as they prefer the correct medical term plantar wart. Should you be unlucky enough to have a verruca, most creams will not feature the word, so look for plantar wart treatments.

And speaking of treatments, it can be very trying when you’re not feeling well and all you want is a packet of Paracetamol. They don’t sell it here (except perhaps at Brit stores), but since it’s actually a brand name for acetaminophen, you can find the same drug properties in Tylenol. If you’re looking for an ibuprofen drug, you probably won’t find Nurofen or Anadin, but you will find Motrin and Advil, which are equivalents. Oh, and anything with codeine in it isn’t sold OTC – over the counter. (This obviously, does not constitute medical advice. If in doubt consult the pharmacist on duty; these people are very knowledgeable and extremely helpful.)

Although both Brits and Americans use the word prescription, sometimes you’ll hear your doc talking about a script and if you see the letters Rx next to anything, it also refers to prescription medication. Doctor written prescriptions are, unfortunately, just as illegible in the U.S. as they are across the Pond. The person who dispenses your prescription is the pharmacist, (although I have also heard druggist) and the place where you collect or fill it, is the pharmacy or drug store; in most instances, any reference to a chemist means the person rather than the shop.

Your medical practitioners might also go by different names. Women typically see an OB/GYN for their specific requirements. These obstetrician/gynecologists are not usually referred to as gynies. The person that fiddles with your feet is a podiatrist (although the word chiropodist exists), the one that cracks your back is a chiropractor and for your eyes, you’ll most likely see an optometrist. If you have serious eye issues, you’ll be referred to an ophthalmologist, which is an eye surgeon. An optician is the person who makes or sells glasses and contact lenses.

A final word of warning: when you go to see your doctor, you go to the office and not the surgery. Telling friends and family that you’ve been to the surgery will likely give them a heart attack.

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • IotaM

    It’s a minefield.

  • dw

    Paracetamol and acetaminophen are not rival brands: they are actually different names for the same chemical substance. To quote Wikipedia:

    “The words acetaminophen (used in the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Iran) and paracetamol (used elsewhere) both come from a chemical name for the compound: para-acetylaminophenol”

    Another example of this phenomenon is adrenaline (UK) versus epinephrine (US).

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      I think that’s what it says. “paracetamol is a brand name for acetaminophen..” ie. different names for the same thing.

      • dw

        But it’s not a brand name. A brand name is a name adopted for commercial purposes, for example Tylenol (in the US) or Panadol (in the UK).

        Acetaminophen/paracetamol are non-commercial, everyday names for the two substances.

  • http://www.facebook.com/favill Steve Favill

    Paracetemol is a registered brand name in the UK, exactly the same way that Tylenol is in the USA. Whatever the actual drug is makes no difference, it is still packaged and sold under the brand name…. Wickipedia is not necessarily an accurate source of information, since it’s free for anyone to edit, they get things wrong from time to time.

    • dw

      No it’s not. “Paracetamol” is just the everyday name (in certain countries) of a particular drug, like “salt” is for sodium chloride.

      See the link that Expat Mum posted above. https://www.google.com/search?q=packets+of+paracetamol&client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=WsCTUdC9MMraywGn64DYDA&ved=0CEUQsAQ&biw=1172&bih=629

      It shows “Paracetamol” appearing under the brand names of Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, Boots and many other manufacturers. If Paracetamol were a “registered brand”, it would be owned by one manufacturer and this wouldn’t be possible. Tylenol in the US __is__ a registered trade mark, and all “Tylenol” is sold by one manufacturer: McNeil Healthcare.

    • expatmum

      Don’t worry Steve. DW lives to spot the typos every week!

      • http://www.facebook.com/favill Steve Favill

        Ah, anoraks of the world unite….

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.lynch.1972 Chris Lynch

    Do you use the term “generics” for non-name brand OTC and prescription drugs? Because you can find almost everything name brand in a generic form ( same drug and mg,etc) at every Walgreens, CVS, and other pharmacies in the US.

    • jennifer

      In my experience yes but not as regularly as in the US. In the UK there is paracetemol and branded Panadol and in the US acetaminophen and branded Tylenol. I bought paracetemol in the UK and buy acetaminophen here-I don’t see a need to pay for branding.

      http://www.patient.co.uk/health/Generic-vs-Brand-Name-Medicines.htm

      • http://profiles.google.com/brainlock72 Brain Lock

        yep, like when I tell a doctor I take ibuprofin, they automatically think “Advil”, when I mean the cheapest generic/OTC version (usually Walmart’s Equate “brand”). I also have to specially request the cheaper version of a Rx, as well. I don’t care to pay 3-4x or more for a lousy “name” drug.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.lynch.1972 Chris Lynch

    Also, a lot of my friends wonder if people overseas have the same annoying drug commercials that we do in the US?

    It seems to do nothing but give people the idea they need certain drugs to live. The side-effects they are required by law to state, often come off as both comical and frightening. My favorite are the ones which cause gambling and/or death.

    • jennifer

      The US and New Zealand are the only two that permit DTC ( direct to consumer) ads, although the pharma lobby wants this to change.

    • expatmum

      And half the side effects are worse than the condition the pill is supposed to be curing. LOL

  • rmi

    Why isn’t there any aspirin in the jungle? Because paracetamol! (best done out loud)

    • cal1963

      First time I heard that joke was by Jo Brand on QI. LOL.

  • Expat Cat

    Having lived in Texas for 3 years and given birth to my second child here I’d add that you will likely have different doctors for everything! Your children will see a pediatrician, you’ll have a general dr (family medicine), a dermatologist, an ob/gyn etc etc. it’s also common practice to interview doctors before you register with them, I found this so strange and just used recommendations. If you have a baby here you will probably see your doctor at every appointment, not a midwife and you can expect that that doctor (or one in that practice if you are out of hours) will deliver your baby. There were in fact no doctors hired by the hospital in the maternity unit where I had my daughter, which is a little awkward when the baby comes a lot faster than expected and your doctor hasn’t arrived yet….

    • bluecar

      Still one of the most confusing and frustrating things about the American system is the multitude of specialties. It’s hard just to find a GP for those everyday maladies but insurance requires some specialists to come through referral and others not so you end up seeing at least two doctors for the simplest procedures!

      • http://profiles.google.com/brainlock72 Brain Lock

        Not to mention what doctor you are allowed to see can change depending on your insurance! especially harder when you live outside a suburban area and the local hospital decides that certain treatments, like CARDIAC are “too much trouble” (basic triage for heart attacks, then you’re shipped off to another hospital an hour away for further care!) and routinely screw up simple things! I’m surprised they haven’t been bought out by a different health care system or been closed down due to malpractice at this point!

        Heck, I had some sort of asthmatic seizure–sorry, “anxiety attack”! a few years back, was given a shot of something (Atavan?), and lost consciousness for over an hour. then TWO YEARS LATER in disability court denial I find out I had an x-ray! and this is the same hospital who took an elbow x-ray for NECK pain after my aunt and I were rear-ended!

  • http://profiles.google.com/brainlock72 Brain Lock

    Hurl, blow chunks, upchuck, regurge, pray to the porcelain gods (altho this usually refers to drunken states, but can apply to a stomach bug).

    chemist – hopefully a lab coated scientist, but also slang for another type of “lab” with a drug maker (re: meth in Breaking Bad).

  • CLAVDIVS

    In the US, “chemist” only refers to someone who does chemistry in a lab as their profession. The word has zero medical connotation.

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