What are Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)?

  • MeSH is a controlled vocabulary, created and maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), that provides a consistent way of retrieving information that may use different terminology for the same concept.
  • MeSH are applied to each Medline citation by expert NLM indexers, who carefully consider the topics of each article.
  • MeSH helps to ensure that searches are comprehensive and allows for searching biomedical literature at varying levels of specificity.
  • MeSH can be used when searching PubMed, and the vocabulary is often useful in other databases as well.


Search Term – Stroke

MeSH Term – Cerebrovascular Accident

Note: A search using the MeSH “Cerebrovascular Accident” will retrieve citations on cerebrovascular accidents and CVA, cerebral stroke, and apoplexy. 


Tips for Searching with MeSH using PubMed

PubMed will attempt to map search terms to the appropriate MeSH term, but a user generally does not have direct control over which specific MeSH terms are used in a basic PubMed search. In order to control which MeSH terms are selected, and more effectively target a PubMed search, use the MeSH Database.

  • The MeSH Database, which is available from the main PubMed page, locates MeSH terms and helps users build targeted PubMed search strategies.
  • For example, a MeSH Database search for the term “lung cancer” yields the MeSH “Lung Neoplasms,” other related MeSH terms, and the definitions of how they are used in the database.

PubMed MeSH Browser

  • From the MeSH Database it is possible to build PubMed Searches by checking the desired term and then clicking “Add to Search Builder” to sending your selected term to the PubMed search box (see below).
  • You can then click “Search PubMed” to retrieve all articles indexed with the selected term, or build a more complex search by adding additional MeSH terms (combining them with “AND,’ ‘OR,’ or ‘NOT’ using the dropdown menu), before searching PubMed.

MeSH Browser PubMed

  • Using MeSH terms in a PubMed search helps to ensure a more targeted and specific search.
  • Note: MeSH is only applied to biomedical citations in PubMed. Therefore using MeSH to search PubMed may exclude citations that fall outside the scope of medicine. Also, because citations are entered into PubMed before they are indexed with MeSH there is a possibility that a PubMed search using MeSH may miss the newest citations.