Intensive care 


Patients in ICUs are usually connected to intensive care equipment by tubes, wires and cables 

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Intensive care units (ICUs) are specialist hospital wards. They provide intensive care (treatment and monitoring) for people in a critically ill or unstable condition.

ICUs are also sometimes known as critical care units or intensive therapy departments.

A person in an ICU needs constant medical attention and support to keep their body functioning. They may be unable to breathe on their own and have multiple organ failure. Medical equipment will take the place of these functions while the person recovers.

When intensive care is needed

There are several circumstances where a person may be admitted to an ICU. These include after surgery, or following an accident or severe illness.

ICU beds are a very expensive and limited resource because they provide:

  • specialised monitoring equipment
  • a high degree of medical expertise
  • constant access to highly trained nurses (usually one nurse for each bed)

Some ICUs are attached to areas that treat specific conditions. Others specialise in the care of certain groups of people. For example, an ICU can specialise in:

  • nervous disorders
  • heart conditions
  • babies (neonatal intensive care, NIC) – for example, for babies born with serious conditions, such as heart defects, or if there is a complication during birth
  • children (paediatric intensive care, PIC) – for children under 16 years of age

Read more about when intensive care is necessary.

What to expect

An ICU can be a daunting environment for both the patient and their family and friends. ICU staff understand this and are there to help the person being cared for and offer support to their family.

Patients in ICUs are often prescribed painkillers and medication that can make them drowsy (sedatives). This is because some of the equipment used can be very uncomfortable.

A series of tubes, wires and cables connect the patient to this equipment, which may look alarming at first. 

Read more about the equipment used to treat and monitor people in ICUs and what to expect when visiting someone in an ICU.


Once a person is able to breathe unaided, they no longer need to be in intensive care and can be transferred to a different ward to continue their recovery.

Depending on their condition, the person will either be transferred to a high dependency unit (HDU), which is one level down from intensive care, or to a general ward.

The time it takes to recover varies greatly from person to person. It also depends on things such as age, level of health and fitness, as well as how severe the condition is.

Read more about recovering from intensive care.

Page last reviewed: 13/04/2012

Next review due: 13/04/2014


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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Fadoo96 said on 15 January 2014

As far as I know, septic shock is a medical emergency and patients are usually admitted to an ICU.

I recommend that you seek advice from 'PALS' (Patient Advice and Liaison Services) whose officers are in most hospitals. They will give confidential advice regarding this matter.

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haircut7 said on 06 January 2014

Hello, My mother (83), went in to hospital a month ago with septic shock and was admitted to the coronary unit for treatment, where she died 9 days later to my horror in the coronary unit they changed consultants every week in a rotate, so I felt she should have been in intensive care not this unit for her treatment, Please can any one advise me regarding this matter, as I feel very upset set about all of this ,Kind Regards.

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