These are Frequently Asked Questions you may encounter during and after an ICU stay. Find additional Patient and Family Resources
for more information.
What is the intensive care unit?
The intensive care unit (ICU) is a special part of the hospital that provides care to patients with severe, life-threatening injuries or illnesses. ICUs have higher nurse-to-patient ratios than other parts of the hospital. They also can provide specialized treatments, such as life support.
What is life support?
Life support refers to various therapies that help keep patients alive when vital organs are failing.
Most often, when people say “life support,” they are referring to a mechanical ventilator, which is also known as a “breathing machine.” Mechanical ventilation helps patients breathe by pushing air into their lungs. The mechanical ventilator is connected to the patient by a tube that goes through the mouth and into the windpipe. Patients who need less lung support than mechanical ventilation may simply have a mask over their mouths and nose to deliver oxygen.
Dialysis is another form of life support; it filters toxins from the blood when kidneys are failing.
What types of medical conditions are treated in the ICU?
There are many reasons that patients may be treated in the ICU. The most common ones are shock, respiratory failure and sepsis.
What is shock?
Shock is a condition in which vital organs are not getting enough oxygen because of low blood pressure. Shock can be caused by many medical conditions, such as heart attack, massive blood loss, severe trauma or sepsis.
What is respiratory failure?
Respiratory failure is lung failure that results in dangerously low levels of oxygen or dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide, which is a waste gas. Respiratory failure can result from lung conditions such as pneumonia, emphysema, or smoke inhalation. Respiratory failure can also be caused by conditions affecting the nerves and muscles that control breathing, such as drug and alcohol overdoses.
What is sepsis?
Sepsis is an infection that results in organ damage. When patients develop an infection, their bodies release chemicals to fight off the infection, but sometimes these chemicals can also damage vital organs, such as kidneys and lungs. When organs are damaged as a result of infection, this is known as sepsis. Any infection can lead to sepsis, but most commonly sepsis results from pneumonia, an abdominal infection (appendicitis or gall bladder infection), or a skin infection (for example, a cut that gets infected).
What sort of medical care happens in the ICU?
Patients in the ICU are very sick. They are often connected to many monitors that allow healthcare professionals to monitor their vital signs on a minute-to-minute basis. Patients often have intravenous tubes (IVs) in their arms and neck so that medications and fluids can be delivered directly into their veins. They often have a tube placed into the body to drain and collect urine. Some patients are also connected to life support machines, such as breathing machines or dialysis machines. Patients may also have a tube through their nose or mouth to deliver liquid food directly into the stomach. In order to tolerate the tubes, IVs, and life support, many patients receive sedating medications.
Is it normal to have difficulty thinking after being hospitalized in an ICU?
Yes, patients often experience difficulty with everyday tasks such as shopping or balancing their checkbook. A recent study demonstrated that more than half of patients had difficulty thinking (also known as cognitive impairment) one year after having a critical illness. One-third of patients had cognitive impairment similar to that of someone who had had a traumatic brain injury, while one-third had cognitive impairment similar to that of someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
Is it normal to be nervous or anxious when remembering events that occurred while hospitalized in an ICU?
Posttraumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that occurs as a reaction to a terrifying and traumatic event. It occurs in 10-20% of patients after critical illness. Patients might be anxious, have nightmares, avoid healthcare settings, and become disengaged.
Is it normal to feel depressed after hospitalization in an ICU?
Depression occurs in one out of three patients after critical illness. Symptoms of depression that might be experienced include prolonged sadness, loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, inability to concentrate, changes in appetite, and changes in sleep.
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