On today’s episode of Thinking in English, let’s learn some new ways to talk about and describe being ill and sick in English! 

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How to Describe Illness in English!!!

If you follow me on Instagram you might have seen my Insta story about feeling rough and losing my voice last week. I had to cancel my scheduled classes and wasn’t able to record podcasts because it was too difficult to talk, and a few days later I came down with a cold. In fact, you might be able to hear now that my voice is still not perfect. 

How can we describe illness in English? We have simple phrases like “I’m sick” or “I’m ill,” but what if you want to be more specific or detailed? There are so many different illnesses, with different characteristics and symptoms. What if you want to talk about how serious your illness is? Or what kind of sickness? Or what if you want to specifically talk about the start, middle, or end of the illness? 

When was the last time you were sick? Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

One approach is to use the exact name of your illness – I have influenza, or I have bronchitis. Or you could talk about your specific symptoms – I have a headache, I have a sore throat, or I have a blocked nose. You could also try to describe the kind of pain you are feeling.

HOWEVER, you might notice that English speakers tend to use a lot of phrases and idioms to talk about being ill. Especially when we don’t actually know exactly what is wrong with us, when we are just feeling bad, there are many different expressions English speakers rely on to communicate our conditions. 

Why should you learn to talk about being ill?

Why is it important? Well, I hope you never get ill when in a foreign country, but it is quite likely that you might feel sick!! I’ve had allergic reactions to insect bites in France as a child, hurt my ankle in Malaysia, got an upset stomach in India, had a sore eye in Taiwan, not to mention the many colds while I’ve lived in Japan! 

Getting ill is part of life, so learning to talk about how you are feeling is an essential skill to learn for anyone living, working, studying, or even travelling abroad. Describing illnesses accurately can help staff in drug stores or doctors in hospitals treat you correctly, help you explain to your friends or employer why you need to stay home, and in general makes your English more interesting!

So today, I’m going to introduce you all to some of the most useful and common English phrases and expressions to talk about being ill. I’m not going to mention actual illnesses or technical words for symptoms (I’ll leave a link to a different blog here with some of the most common illnesses explained in English on thinkinginenglish.blog), but instead focus on idioms and common sayings. Actually, you should also check out the article I wrote on How to Describe Pain in English as well – which is also a really useful guide! 

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How to Describe Getting Ill in English!

Let’s start with some ways to describe getting ill in English! Use these to talk about the start of a sickness, when you are feeling unwell but maybe unsure exactly what is wrong!

She definitely feels rough… Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

I feel rough.

Rough is a common way of saying unpleasant and unwell in English. You can use this phrase right at the start of an illness – sometimes you wake up after a bad night’s sleep and feel a little rough! You could also say I feel out of sorts, I feel unwell, or I feel off. 

I feel rubbish.

As your illness starts to get worse, you can start to use stronger vocabulary. I guess that you know your body is not in perfect condition, but maybe you are unsure exactly what is wrong with you. Rubbish is a British English word, which I personally use all the time, meaning bad! Actually, any word meaning bad could be used here – such as I feel awful or I feel terrible.

I’m not feeling great.

Sometimes English speakers like to talk in the negative – for example saying I’m not feeling great instead of saying I feel rubbish. Why? Well, using a phrase like I’m not feeling great is an excellent way of saying something negative without sounding too serious. When I was ill last weekend, people kept telling me to go to the hospital or asking me how I was feeling and if I was ok…. I found it quite annoying! Using a phrase like I’m not feeling great is a good way to tell someone you’re ill without making them worried! 

I’m not feeling 100%.

Similar to the ‘I’m not feeling great,’ I’m not feeling 100% is an understatement – it usually means you are feeling rubbish but don’t want anyone to know! British people are especially likely to understate their illnesses – we don’t like to admit we are feeling rough! So, if you hear a British person say I’m not feeling great or I’m not feeling 100% they probably mean they are really sick! 

Feeling under the weather

Feeling under the weather is a common idiom and phrase which is used all the time, especially in the UK. It means you are not feeling well. Moreover, it is also a common understatement – used to make your condition sound less negative. 

I think I’m coming down with something

I think I’m coming down with something is another phrase to talk about feeling bad – however use this when you are certain you are getting ill. You can come down with the flu, come down with a bug, and come down with a cold!

How to Describe Being Ill in English!!

Next, let’s look at a few phrases to talk about being ill. There are probably hundreds of different options you could include here, so I’ve just selected five general phrases which can be used to describe common symptoms of colds and the flu. Of course, I’d recommend you search online or send me a message on Instagram if you want to know more specific terms.

Clogged up / bunged up

One of the most annoying symptoms of a cold is being clogged up or bunged up. This is an alternative to saying ‘blocked nose.’ It is when you can’t breath through your nose as it is completely clogged up or bunged up. This is my least favourite part about being sick!

I guess his head is killing him.. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

My … is killing me!

This is one of the most versatile phrases to describe feeling unwell. It is a way of saying something hurts, or is in a lot of pain! If you have a headache – My head is killing me. If you have a sore throat – my throat is killing me. If you have an upset stomach – my stomach is killing me! Check out the podcast I did on describing pain for more options!!

Can’t keep anything down

Another common symptom of many illnesses is ‘throwing up,’ ‘vomiting,’ and ‘being sick.’ It is when the contents of your stomach come back up your throat and out of your mouth – very unpleasant. Many years ago I came down with a stomach bug, and whatever I ate or drank wouldn’t stay in my stomach. I couldn’t keep anything down. 

Faint / light-headed / dizzy

Faint, light-headed, and dizzy all have similar meanings. It is when you feel weak, and especially as if you are going to pass out or lose consciousness. Sometimes people feel light-headed if they don’t eat all day, or they feel faint after seeing blood.


If you can’t leave your bed due to having a serious illness, you are bedridden. You are too weak and sick to get up – you are bedridden

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How to Describe Getting Better in English!!

So we’ve describe getting ill and being ill. Next, let’s discuss how to describe getting better in English. It is important to tell people you are no longer ill – you don’t want them to worry! How can you do this?

On the mend 

My voice is currently on the mend. It is not perfect, not fully recovered, but it is getting better. On the mend is a great phrase to describe being over the worst of a sickness. If you are on the mend, you are not fully recovered but you are getting better. 

I’ve got over it.

Now you are fully recovered, you got over it! The illness is over and you have successfully recovered. Hopefully by next week I will have fully gotten over my cold! 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Back on your feet

Back on your feet is another way of saying ‘fully recovered.’ When you are ill you should rest and spend time in bed. Once you are back on your feet, you have gotten over your illness! 

A clean bill of health

Finally, sometimes you need to go to the doctor to get a health check! Perhaps you’ve recently been ill, something doesn’t feel quite right, or you just want a check up. If a doctor gives you a clean bill of health it means you are completely fine and there is nothing wrong with you! 

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I’ve tried to give you all some useful ways to describe being ill in English! Do you know any other ways to describe being sick or ill? What do you do when you feel rough or come down with something? 

Let me know in the comments!! Share your tips and tricks! 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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