What Is an Intensive Care Unit (ICU)?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 10, 2022
5 min read

Some people have heard of the ICU but don’t fully understand what goes on in an intensive care unit. Read on to learn more about these specialty hospital wards that help treat severe cases and provide, as the name suggests, intensive care.

ICUs are hospital wards with specialized staff, equipment, and standards. An ICU may also be called a critical care unit (CCU) or intensive therapy unit (ITU).

Intensive care unit purpose. An ICU handles severe, potentially life-threatening cases. People who are in a serious accident, undergo major surgery, or have a sudden decline in health may get treatment from an ICU.

Requirements for admission into an ICU. Patients with potential or current organ failure are prime candidates for ICU care. Other factors that will determine who is or is not admitted to the ICU include:

  • Diagnosis
  • Illness severity
  • Prognosis and anticipated quality of life
  • Treatment availability
  • Response to treatment so far

An ICU doctor will also consider the patient’s age, coexisting conditions, physiological reserve, and personal wishes.

When is intensive care needed? ICU staff are called when a patient’s condition meets certain criteria. These criteria include:

  • An obstructed or threatened airway
  • Respiratory arrest
  • A respiratory rate between 8 and 40 breaths per minute
  • Cardiac arrest
  • A pulse that’s less than 40 or greater than 140 beats per minute
  • Repeated or extended seizures

If the patient gives these or another cause for concern, they may receive intensive care. 

The basics of IC care include thoroughly monitoring the patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, blood oxygen levels, urinary output, and temperature. 

Typical equipment in an ICU. Along with the equipment needed to monitor the factors listed above, other equipment in the ICU can include:

  • Ventilators to help patients breathe
  • Intravenous (IV) tubes to provide fluid, nutrition, and medication
  • Feeding tubes
  • Drain tubes to remove blood or fluid buildup
  • Catheters to drain urine

Common drugs in an ICU. Many patients in an ICU receive pain-relieving medications or sedatives. These may relieve symptoms of their condition or discomfort caused by the equipment.

Close monitoring. There is typically one nurse for every one or two patients in the ICU. This lets the ICU staff closely monitor all patients closely.

Your experience as a patient will vary depending on your reason for receiving intensive care. The ICU is a high-functioning operational environment in a sterile area with a lot of equipment. The sounds, smells, machines, and level of activity can be overwhelming for patients and visitors.

You’ll be constantly monitored digitally from devices and by the staff themselves. You’ll be well-acquainted with the nurses and doctors treating you. As long as you’re awake and communicative, you make decisions about your care. 

If you’re unconscious, sedated, or unable to make a decision, your close family will make decisions on your behalf. Alternatively, the ICU staff may need to make a decision in your best interest in an emergency. 

If you’re taking sedatives, painkillers, and other medications, you may feel drowsy, but the ICU staff will make sure you’re as comfortable as possible.

Visiting a loved one in the ICU can be overwhelming and heartbreaking, but there are some things you can do to prepare for a visit.

Understand the visiting restrictions. ICUs tend to have flexible visiting hours, but many have restrictions to avoid contagions. Check your ICU’s visiting hours to find out about their restrictions.

Some ICUs will limit the number of people who can visit, so coordinate your visits with your family and friends to avoid overwhelming your loved one or breaking the ICU’s guidelines. 

Protect yourself and others. The ICU will ask you to wash or sanitize your hands to prevent potential infection. They’ll also restrict the items you can bring with you.

If you’re ill or sick, don’t visit the ICU. The patients are in a critical state, and you shouldn’t risk compromising their health.

Know what you may see. Your loved one will be connected to several devices via tubes and wires. They may seem drowsy or confused due to some medications, so visiting them can be emotional.

The ICU staff knows that this can be a challenging time for people, which is why some ICUs offer support services for patients and their families. Not all ICUs offer the same support services, though. Below, you will find just a few of the support services many major hospitals offer.

Counseling. Whether you’re a patient or a patient’s loved one, being admitted into an ICU can be scary. Your ICU may have counselors on staff to support patients and their families.

A major benefit of seeing a counselor through the ICU is their familiarity with what happens in an ICU. They can provide specific support based on what you or your family are going through.

Interpreting. If English isn’t your first language, ICU interpreters can help translate the medical language that the ICU uses. An interpreter’s service can be vital when specific ICU procedures need consent from the patient or their family.

Pastoral guidance. Most hospitals have a pastoral counseling service that provides spiritual guidance for those who need it. They also may have a non-denominational chapel you can visit to engage in some quiet reflection. 

The hospital will likely transfer you to another ward once you don’t need intensive care. This may take a few days to a few months, though, depending on your condition. 

While many people recover from treatment in an ICU, they may experience side effects following their stay, including: 

  • Weakness
  • Stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Trouble thinking or remembering

Cost of an ICU stay. It’s difficult to put a solid number on how much a stay in an ICU will be. In most cases, the cost is determined by the types of procedures done, the length of your stay, and any specialized care you need.

An ICU may seem like a scary place, but the ICU’s staff can work wonders for you and your family. They’ll do everything they can to make sure everyone gets home safe.