skip navigation , health centers and clinics , search , accessibility statement , Página en español ,
Contra Costa Health Services
contact us

Topics > Healthy Outlook > Don't Be Afraid If You Have An "-itis"

Don't Be Afraid If You Have An "-itis"

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Wed., October 28, 2009
By Stephen Daniels, MD

"DOCTOR, THIS isn't just a cough. I think its bronchitis."

"They said I have gastritis. I thought it was only heartburn."

"The package insert for this medicine said it could cause hepatitis. Does that mean it contains some sort of germs? Could I be contagious?"

Like all subjects of study and practice, medicine has it's own vocabulary. Though in medicine, when it affects your body, the vocabulary can become scary.

Attaching the suffix "-itis" to the end of a word, often a Latin word, can make many common illnesses seem more severe and more frightening than they often are.

"-itis" means "inflamed", which in turn means that the body's inflammatory process has occurred in certain body tissues. In practical terms, inflamed mean red, swollen, painful and/or tender.

Most bodily tissues, such as skin, muscle, heart or liver, are composed mostly of cells that are bound tightly together. Cells are tiny bags that usually enclose a variety of chemicals and water. When the body detects a foreign substance, such as a germ or foreign chemical, it increases blood flow to that area. The blood contains its own cells that try to attack the foreign elements. Increased blood flow causes swelling, and when the blood cells attack the foreign elements, they often also cause the tissue cells to break apart and the water and chemicals to leak out.

This complex inflammatory process is what causes swollen tonsils, the rash of poison oak, the yellow jaundice of hepatitis, and the pain and bleeding of a stomach ulcer.

Let's talk about some "itises" that often occur with the flu.

"Pharyngitis" means inflamed pharynx (sore throat). So, pharyngitis is a technical name for a sore throat. With rare exceptions, they are exactly the same thing. Pharyngitis is neither worse nor better than a sore throat. Most cases of "pharyngitis" are caused by viruses, for which the only treatment is time.

"Bronchitis" is a technical name for an inflamed bronchus. (Bronchus is the name of the medium-sized tubes that connect the mouth to the lungs.) In most cases bronchitis is just a fancy word for a cough. Some doctors might reserve "bronchitis" for a cough that produces phlegm (sputum), but there is no medical basis for that.

Interestingly, patients who are told they have a "chest cold" instead of "bronchitis" are less worried and less likely to insist on receiving antibiotics, even though the doctor uses the terms interchangeably.

Another "-itis"—this one not usually associated with the flu—that causes confusion is "hepatitis." We commonly associate hepatitis with infections from hepatitis A, B or C. In fact, though, "hepatitis" just means inflamed liver. It can become inflamed from viruses (such as A, B or C), medicines, alcohol or chemicals. So hepatitis that may be a side effect of a medicine has nothing to do with viral hepatitis that can be contagious.

"Gastritis" means inflamed stomach. The sufferer usually experiences what we call "heart burn" or "dyspepsia". When the stomach becomes inflamed, it can be either spread out ("gastritis"), or it can be focused in one spot (ulcer).

So, don't be afraid if you get an "-itis." But it's often a good time to consult your doctor.

Dr. Daniels practices family medicine at the Concord and Pittsburg Health Centers, part of Contra Cost Health Services, the county health department.

Contra Costa County home page