Health A to Z
Intensive care units (ICUs) are specialist hospital wards that provide treatment and monitoring for people who are very ill.
They're staffed with specially-trained healthcare professionals and contain sophisticated monitoring equipment.
ICUs are also sometimes called critical care units (CCUs) or intensive therapy units (ITUs).
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Intensive care is needed if someone is seriously ill and requires intensive treatment and close monitoring, or if they're having surgery and intensive care can help them recover.
Most people on an ICU have problems with one or more organs. For example, they may be unable to breathe on their own.
There are many different conditions and situations that can mean someone needs intensive care. Some common reasons include:
Patients on an ICU will be looked after closely by a team of ICU staff and will be connected to equipment by a number of tubes, wires and cables. There will normally be one nurse for every one or two patients.
This equipment is used to monitor their health and support their bodily functions until they recover.
Equipment that may be used on an ICU includes:
Someone in an ICU will often be on painkilling medication and medication that makes them drowsy (sedatives). This is because some of the equipment used can be uncomfortable.
An ICU can often be an overwhelming place, both for the patient and their loved ones. It can therefore help to know a little about what to expect.
You'll usually be free to touch, comfort and talk to the person. It may help them to hear and recognise familiar voices, even if they don't appear to respond.
You might want to tell them about your day, or read them a book or newspaper. You can bring in things to make them more comfortable, but ask staff beforehand if there's anything you shouldn't bring.
The ICU staff will be on hand during your visit to answer any questions you have.
Once a person no longer needs intensive care, they can be transferred to a different ward to continue their recovery before eventually going home.
Some people may leave the ICU after a few days. Others may need to stay in the ICU for months, or may deteriorate there.
Many people who leave an ICU will make a good recovery. But sometimes there can be lingering problems, such as:
These problems can last several months. Get medical advice if they are a persistent issue for you or a loved one. Some people may require ongoing support and treatment (rehabilitation) to help them recover.
If your loved one has been admitted to an ICU and is awake and able to communicate, they'll be fully involved in decisions about their care.
But if they're unconscious or sedated, they may not be able to give their consent (permission) for a particular treatment or procedure.
If they knew they were going into intensive care, they may have nominated someone to make decisions about treatment on their behalf (called a "designated decision maker") or made an advance decision about any treatments they don't want to have.
If this wasn't possible in an emergency situation, the ICU staff treating them will usually decide what they feel is in their best interests. They will talk things over with you and/or the person's family whenever possible.
Read more about giving consent to treatment.
The following websites can be useful sources of more information and support: