Sick? Illness and disease vocabulary in English

Sick? Illness and disease vocabulary in English

by Erin McGann

Updated August 11, 2022

Imagine it: you are in a new country and you feel sick to your stomach. Not because everything is stressful (it is, but we’ll leave that for now) but because something you ate is making you visit the restroom more often. How do you talk to a doctor about it? I know, this one is going to be too much information, or TMI as we say in English, all the way through. Sorry!

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Illness vocabulary: “I don’t feel well” in English

I admit it, English speakers are very reluctant to say what exactly is happening when they are sick. Unless you’re sitting in the doctor’s examining room, it’s not unusual to be have trouble getting the details of someone’s illness.

They will use a hundred little casual phrases to describe not feeling healthy. Here are the most used vocabulary words around feeling sick:

  • I’m not feeling well
  • I’m not good
  • My stomach is a bit funny
  • I’m feeling poorly (UK specific, North Americans don’t always understand this one)
  • I think I’ve picked up a bug
  • I’m feeling run down
  • I’m a bit under the weather
  • I think I’m coming down with something (my husband’s favourite)

For some reason, English speakers are allergic (see what I did there?) to explaining exactly what is going on.

It’s more polite to say: ‘I’m feeling under the weather,’ than it is to just say: ‘I have a cold’. 

Different kinds of sickness

If you are bent over the toilet and vomiting up your lunch, you are ‘sick to your stomach’.

However, if your head is the part that hurts, you have a ‘headache’ – there is no being sick to your head.

If you feel a bit of pain all over your body, and you have to blow your nose a lot, you probably have ‘a cold’. This is a sickness, and although you may also feel cold when you have a cold, these are two different things.

If you have ‘the flu’, you will know it. Your temperature will be unusually high (having a fever), and you will get shaky. I had the flu last winter, and trust me, there is no confusing it with anything else.

A cold or flu is a virus we can’t take any medicine to get rid of, but you can take some pills to make it feel a bit better while our bodies fight it off. You can get an injection from your doctor called a vaccine, which gives your body the tools to fight off certain viruses.

Young children get several vaccines to help them fight off diseases, and sometimes these injections are called ‘shots’. 

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Do you have a virus or sickness?

If you’ve been sick for more than a month, you might have something other than ‘a virus’, called a bacterial infection.

If you’ve cut yourself, and then maybe ignored it hoping it would go away, and it didn’t but got red, hot and painful, this is an infection. This can happen inside your body too, like in your lungs. The doctor will give you what is called antibiotics, medicine that will fight the infection.

We’ve only had the ability to make antibiotics for about 100 years, and these infections used to be very serious. Antibiotics come in little packages called ‘pills’. You will get a piece of paper from the doctor called a ‘prescription’, which you take to the ‘pharmacist’.

A pharmacist is a person trained in making and giving medicines, so they might ask you if you are taking any other medicine when you go to get your pills. They know a lot about medicine, so if you feel like you have a bad cold, it’s worth going to a pharmacy and asking them for something to make you feel better.

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The illness you made yourself. With beer.

Although recently in Germany the courts have ruled that being hungover is an illness, generally when you have had too much to drink at a party the night before and then feel horrible the next morning, most people will not be very sympathetic. Some good phrases for describing how you feel include:

  • I feel like death warmed up
  • I maybe had too much fun last night
  • I am feeling a little sensitive this morning

If someone says to you: ‘You look a little green about the gills this morning’ they are usually saying they know you are hungover, or at least feeling a bit sick to your stomach. 


Erin McGann is a Canadian freelance writer focusing on travel, living abroad, parenting, history, and culture. After nearly a decade living in the UK, Erin settled in Heidelberg, Germany with her husband and son. Dragging her family to every castle and open-air museum is a favourite activity, along with sewing, archery, and historical reenactment. You can check out her travel blog, and follow her obsession with half-timbered houses on her Instagram account.

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