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JAMA Patient Page |

Intensive Care Units FREE

Janet M. Torpy, MD, Writer; Cassio Lynm, MA, Illustrator; Richard M. Glass, MD, Editor
JAMA. 2009;301(12):1304. doi:10.1001/jama.301.12.1304.
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Published online

Intensive care units (ICUs) are sections in hospitals that contain specialized equipment and highly trained staff to treat patients who have a serious illness or injury. Patients may be admitted to the ICU from an emergency department or other hospital section, after surgery, or after transfer from another health care facility. The March 25, 2009, issue of JAMA includes an article about preventing infections related to the use of catheters (tubes) in ICUs. This Patient Page is based on one published in the June 26, 2002, issue of JAMA.


  • Monitors measure body functions such as breathing and heart rate. They often have alarms that sound to alert the ICU staff when such functions are outside of a normal range.

  • Intravenous catheters (tubes) are inserted in patients' veins to dispense medicine, fluids, and nutrition as needed. A nasogastric tube may be inserted through the nose into the stomach. Urinary catheters are used to drain urine from the bladder.

  • Mechanical ventilators (also called respirators) are machines that help patients breathe through a tube that is inserted through the mouth or nose into the trachea (windpipe) and is connected to the ventilator.


  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is sudden lung failure that often requires use of a ventilator. It is caused by other illnesses such as infections or serious injuries.

  • Asthma involves obstruction of the airways that causes difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing.

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes exhaling difficult. It is usually caused by smoking-related lung disorders such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

  • Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that may interfere with breathing.

  • Respiratory distress syndrome can occur in infants whose lungs are underdeveloped, causing difficulty breathing.

  • Sepsis is a very serious infection in the blood or tissues.

  • Trauma involves injuries, such as from motor vehicle crashes, that often require surgery.


  • Physicians: Critical care doctors are trained in all aspects of the care of critically ill patients.

  • Nurses: ICU nurses have specialized training in caring for critically ill patients and provide around-the-clock bedside care and monitoring.

  • Respiratory therapists: Monitor patients' respiration (breathing) and use equipment, such as respirators, required to improve breathing.

  • Physical therapists: Help patients maintain flexibility and muscle strength to prevent disability and speed recovery.

  • Nutritionists: Assess the food and fluid needs of patients.

  • Social workers: Help patients and families deal with various aspects of critical illness, including psychological and financial issues, and help with recovery after discharge from the hospital.

  • Pastoral care staff: Provide spiritual and emotional support for patients and family members.



To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page Index on JAMA's Web site at http://www.jama.com. A Patient Page on ventilator-associated pneumonia was published in the August 20, 2008, issue.

Sources: American College of Chest Physicians, American Lung Association, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.




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