What Is ICU?


ICU stands for Intensive Care Unit and is also known as a critical care unit in some places. It is a highly specialized section of a hospital that cares for extremely ill patients, either admitted directly from the emergency room or transferred from another unit or facility. Many patients in the ICU have life-threatening conditions or injuries and require continuous medical care and monitoring through special equipment and an extensive medical staff.

Common Conditions Treated

ICUs treat a variety of patients who require round-the-clock care. Cardiovascular patients suffer from heart problems such as heart attacks, abnormal heart beats and congestive heart failure. Pulmonary patients include those with severe asthma, pneumonia or other types of respiratory distress. Neurological patients are often suffering from a brain injury, a stroke, a spinal cord injury or severe head trauma. Other patients may be experiencing kidney failure, internal bleeding or life-threatening infections.


There are several types of ICUs with different specialties. The most common unit is the medical/surgical/respiratory ICU, which covers post-operative patients, those with complicated medical issues and respiratory disorders. Some hospitals may have specialized cardiac, neurological or trauma and burn units as well. Children are generally put into a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). Babies born prematurely or with major medical problems are sent to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).


ICUs use equipment commonly found in other parts of the hospital as well as specialized equipment rarely found in other units. Foley catheters, which are thin rubber tubes inserted through the urethra into the bladder, are used for patients who cannot use a bedpan or require fluid output monitoring. Stomach tubes allow doctors to take samples directly from the stomach as well as provide nutrition to the patient. Arterial catheters, usually inserted into the wrist or hip artery, are used to take blood samples and more accurate blood pressures than a cuff can give. Heart monitors, mechanical ventilators and machines that measure brain function are common sights in the ICU.


ICUs are staffed with highly trained specialists and nurses who work together to ensure the highest level of care for each patient. Registered nurses are specially trained to treat extremely ill patients, and the nurse-to-patient ratio is lower than in other units in the hospital. Specialists include surgeons, cardiologists, neurologists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists and nutritionists. Social workers and clergy members are available to support patients and loved ones.


Although there are many benefits to treating patients in the ICU, there are also risks. The greatest risk and most common complication is infection. Infection can be spread from patient to patient even when the strictest precautions are followed. It can also result from the equipment used. Foley catheters, for example, increase the risk of urinary tract infections because bacteria can get onto the tube and into the bladder. Complications such as excessive bleeding, clotting, or internal damage can also occur during placement or from long-term use of catheters and tubes.

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