Visiting intensive care 

An intensive care unit (ICU) can often be an overwhelming place, both for the patient in hospital and their loved ones. It can therefore help to know a little about what to expect.


When visiting an ICU, many people in the ward may appear to be asleep because they are on painkilling medication (analgesics) and medication that can make them drowsy (sedatives).

This type of medication is necessary if the person is unable to breathe on their own, because artificial ventilation (where a machine is used to help you breathe) is very uncomfortable without it.

People in an intensive care unit will be prescribed the least amount of sedatives possible, but their comfort will be assessed regularly. This means people being treated in ICUs may be partially awake some of the time.

Unfamiliar sights

Patients in ICUs will usually be connected to intensive care equipment by a number of tubes, wires and cables to monitor their condition.

Read more about the equipment that is used to treat and monitor people in ICUs.

Patients in ICUs may sometimes appear slightly swollen. The swelling is caused by the treatment the person is receiving and their inability to move. They may also have visible injuries, such as bruises or wounds. This can be upsetting to see, but the doctors and nurses in charge of the person's care will always ensure that they are as comfortable as possible.

Unfamiliar sounds

There will usually be unfamiliar sounds in an ICU, such as alarms and bleeps from the equipment. These help the ICU staff monitor the patients.

Most noises are nothing to worry about, but ask if you are unsure. ICU staff are highly skilled and will usually be very understanding.

Visiting hours

Visiting hours in an ICU are usually flexible. However, there may be times when you have to wait – for example, if a patient needs immediate assistance from ICU staff. The number of people allowed around a bed will usually be limited for the safety of the patient.

In ICUs, high levels of hygiene must always be maintained, so you will be asked to use an alcohol hand rub before entering the unit and before you leave. Dispensers can usually be found at the entrance of the ICU and by every bed space.

If someone you care about is in an ICU, you may want to touch and comfort them and this is usually encouraged. It is important to talk to the person you are visiting because they may be able to hear and recognise familiar voices, even if it appears they cannot. You may want to tell your loved one about your day, or read them a book or newspaper.

You can bring in things to make the person more comfortable, but check with the ICU staff beforehand. Flowers are not usually allowed in an ICU because there is a risk they could spread infection.

Page last reviewed: 09/07/2014

Next review due: 09/07/2016