Medical terms can be intimidating. If your doctor tells you that you have a combination of tracheobronchitis, pharyngitis and otitis, it may sound like you have something horrible. But in fact, he or she may just be telling you that you have a bad cold.
"-itis" Means Inflammation
These terms might just sound like the mysterious technical language of doctors. But knowing that "-itis" means "inflammation" helps to decipher these terms more readily: Tracheobronchitis means inflammation of the trachea and bronchi (the airways leading into the lungs), pharyngitis means inflammation of the throat (pharynx), and otitis means inflammation of the ear.
Armed with this knowledge, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of medical terms can be translated with relative ease.
Consider the various organs of the body and how inflammatory disorders are named using the suffix "-itis":
- Skin: dermatitis — for example, eczema, a condition characterized by dry, itchy skin, is often called eczematous dermatitis because the skin is inflamed; contact dermatitis refers to an allergic reaction (including inflammation) to something that comes into contact with the skin
- Joints and nearby structures: arthritis — for example, rheumatoid arthritis refers to a condition in which multiple joints are inflamed, while bursitis and tendonitis indicate inflammation of the bursa (saclike structure over larger joints) and tendons (the specialized attachments of muscles to bone)
- Eye: conjunctivitis — an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the lining just inside the lid and on the surface of the white part of the eye
- Brain: meningitis and encephalitis — examples include infections that cause inflammation of the lining (meninges) of the brain or the brain itself (for example, viral encephalitis)
- Ear/nose/throat: examples include sinusitis, bacterial infections of the sinuses; or otitis media bacterial infections of the inner ear
- Heart: pericarditis, myocarditis, endocarditis — common examples include viral infections of the lining of the heart (pericardium) or the heart muscle itself (the myocardium); bacterial infection of the heart valves is called bacterial endocarditis
There are many other examples (colon inflammation is colitis, vascular inflammation is vasculitis, and so on), but you get the idea.
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Why So Much Inflammation?
There are literally hundreds of medical terms using the ending "itis." Why is this such a common phenomenon? The answer lies in the relatively limited number of ways the human body can respond to an "insult." Whether an infection, an injury, or an autoimmune disease (such as lupus nephritis — inflammation of the kidney due to lupus), the body responds with inflammatory cells. These cells, especially the white blood cells, are involved in defending the body from harm and maintaining its health.
Inflammation is also part of the body’s repair system, so inflammatory cells may invade injured or degenerating tissue. As a result, almost any area of your body can be inflamed at one time or another; sometimes the inflammation is dramatic (as in gout or pneumonia), and sometimes it's mild (as in an infection around a hair follicle or a minor cut on your finger). Usually, inflammation serves a useful purpose to improve or restore health. But when the immune system goes awry, as in autoimmune diseases (including lupus and many others), the inflammation itself becomes the problem.
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The Bottom Line
It may seem as though someone is thinking up complicated medical terms just to make life confusing and to give doctors a language all their own. The fact is, these terms have evolved over time and provide a precision and uniformity that is often useful to the health care professionals but less so for non-medical people. Because the potential for confusion is always present when the talk turns medical, it pays to know at least a few of the common themes in medical terminology — when you do, you'll know better what your doctor is saying.
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Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.