Nursing Terminology: 15 Words and Phrases to Know

Dec 15, 2020
Amy Quynh L.N. Tran, MSN, RN, PHN

Nurses use nursing terminology—or nurse lingo—to communicate effectively with other nurses as well as other healthcare professionals, in both spoken and written forms, during patient care. However, many of these phrases or terms are uniquely used among nurses as standardized nursing terminology. 

Here are the top 15 most commonly used nursing terms you should know!

1. Can I Get a “Waste?”

Nurses are authorized to handle and administer narcotics to patients as prescribed. Not all narcotics come in the prescribed dosages or the amount needed by the patient. Therefore, sometimes the nurse needs to “waste” the partially used narcotics.

The word “waste” in this nursing scenario indicates the witnessing process by another authorized staff member such as another licensed nurse or a licensed pharmacist. The witnessing process involves the nurse who administered the partially used narcotics discarding the medication according to hospital or clinic policy while another authorized witness observes that nurse doing so.

The witness also needs to observe the proper documentation by the administering nurse accounting the amount used and discarded. This “waste” process is very essential to ensure no narcotics are diverted, and it protects the administering nurse from any diversion claims. 

2. Tachy

“Tachy” is pronounced the same as “tacky.” However, “tachy” has a whole new meaning in nursing terminology. “Tachy” is the abbreviation of “tachycardia,” meaning a fast heart rate. When a nurse looks at the heart rate monitor, s/he might say, “She’s tachy,” indicating the patient’s heart rate is elevated, and their heart is beating too fast.  

3. Have You Had a Bowel Movement Yet?

You’ll see the nurse asking their patients this question most commonly after an abdominal surgery. Whenever the abdomen is surgically manipulated, there’s a chance the abdomen is not moving things along properly. This condition is medically termed as “ileus.” 

When an ileus happens, the patient cannot produce a bowel movement. Prolonged periods with no bowel movement after abdominal surgery may lead to tissue death and abdominal infection. Lots of medical interventions can ensue to resolve a situation involving ileus. The nurse needs to monitor the patient and look out for the possibility of an ileus to best care for their patient.

4. Banana Bag

A “banana bag” is a yellow-colored IV fluid bag. Its yellow color is characteristic of a banana, and it contains lots of nutrients such as vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B9 (folate), sugar (dextrose), salt water (saline), and multivitamin. The multivitamin component makes the fluid appear yellow. 

They are most commonly used to treat alcohol withdrawal patients. Since nurses handle and administer medications, they are the ones who give the “banana bag” to the patient. You’ll often hear nurses say, “Get me the banana bag!”

banana bag nursing photo of banana of yellow background

5. Walkie-talkie

“Walkie-talkie” refers to a patient who needs minimal bedside nursing care in the hospital. They usually can feed themselves, have low fall risks, and can go to the bathroom by themselves. These patients are usually those who are at the end of their hospital stay.

Typically, they are ready for discharge and are just waiting on a discharge order or to be picked up. Sometimes, however, they just need the nurse to bring their medications for them at their bedside. 

You’ll hear nurses use “walkie-talkie” when reporting to the next nurse who will be taking over the care for this patient at the change of shift… likely something like, “Oh, Mrs. Anderson is a walkie-talkie.”

6. Total

“Total” refers to a patient who needs maximum total nursing care. These patients usually have a lot of interventions such as IV fluids or feeding bags because they cannot eat on their own, a urinary catheter to help drain their urine, a tracheostomy (a breathing tube in their neck) to help them breathe, and so on. 

This is a patient who will need a lot of care and plenty of hands-on nursing practice.

7.  Frequent Flyer

“Frequent Flyer” refers to a patient who repeatedly visits the Emergency Room or gets hospitalized repeatedly (and is often recognized by the regular staff).   

8. Sundowner/Sundowning

“Sundowning” refers to a phenomenon in elderly patients with dementia after the sun goes down. These patients usually become very confused, agitated, combative, delusional, and even hallucinate once the sun goes down. Oftentimes, they are the total opposite when the sun is up; for example, they may go from gentle and nice during the day to aggressive and argumentative during the night.

9. NPO

“NPO” means “nothing by mouth.” It’s derived from the Latin term “Nil Per Os,” with “nil” meaning nothing, “per” meaning by, and “Os” meaning mouth. A patient may have the sign “NPO” in front of their room door or on top of the hospital bed to remind staff not to give the patient anything to eat by mouth.  

This is essential in many patients, especially those who are about to have surgery. Undigested food or fluid in the stomach can be aspirated while a patient is under anesthesia. 

10. Hat

A “hat” refers to a urine collection pan that can be placed on top of a toilet bowl. Nurses use the “hat” to measure the urine output of patients. In some patients with kidney problems or heart failure, the intake and output of fluids are important to measure so the nurse can see how the patient’s body and organs are doing. 

You will hear nurses say something like, “Can you get me the hat?”

11. WNL

“WNL” means ‘Within Normal Limit.” Nurses usually chart in their patient documentation as “WNL” especially in electronic medical records. 

For example, when the nurse examines the patient’s neurological system and finds the patient to have no neurological deficits, the nurse would write “WNL” under the Neuro section. Charting could look like this... 

Neuro: Alert, oriented to time, place, and person; clear speech; no paresis. 


Neuro: WNL

12. Code Brown

“Code brown” refers to an emergency incident of a bowel movement in a patient’s bed (or anywhere not in a toilet). This usually happens in patients who have incontinence of bowels. Nurses may ask for help with handling code browns, including getting more gloves, a bed pan, diapers, new bed sheets, clean cloths, and so on when saying, “code brown!”

Looking for a “fun” type of code brown? Trusted recently released a card game called “Code Brown: the card game for naughty nurses
.” Check it out for a good laugh!

13. Ad Lib

“Ad lib” means “as desired.” It’s the short version of Latin phrase “Ad libitum.” Nurses often say, “The patient is up ad lib,” to denote that the patient does not have any physical or activity restrictions. 

The patient may get in and out of bed unassisted and walk as much as the patient would like to. Some other patients may have restrictions due to high fall risks or other hazards. The patients with high fall risks would need help to get out of bed and are not “ad lib” to do activities without assistance.

14. OOB

“OOB” means “out of bed.” Some patients need help getting OOB to chair or need to be reminded by their nurse to get OOB. Some patients feel more comfortable laying in bed all the time during their hospitalization. This is usually due to the excessive physical effort it takes to get themselves up due to recent surgeries or other physical limitations.

Nurses will usually try to get them “OOB to chair” at least once during their 12-hour shift to help the patient’s lungs expand and breathe better. You’ll find “OOB” mostly in written nursing notes instead of spoken form. In written form, it is usually noted as “OOB to chair.” 

15. PRN

“PRN” means “as needed” or “when necessary.” It’s the short version of the Latin phrase “pro re nata.” Literally, “pro” means “for,” “re” means “thing” or “matter,” and “nata” means “born” or “for the matter born.” 

Therefore, PRN, or “pro re nata,” means “as the circumstance or situation arises.” For example, the patient is on Ibuprofen 200mg every six hours PRN for back pain. This means the patient may take 200mg of Ibuprofen every six hours only if their back starts hurting, instead of taking the medication every six hours around the clock.

In nurse staffing, PRN is also used to mean “Per Diem,” particularly in the case of part-time or travel nurses. So... how much of this nurse terminology were you familiar with??

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