ICU Nurse standing near a patient

ICU nurses, also called critical care nurses, are in high demand, and this demand will continue to grow in the coming years. So many patients in life-threatening situations need help from competent, compassionate nurses, and ICU nursing jobs are available for those seeking a challenging and rewarding career and who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of others.

What does ICU mean?

The intensive care unit (ICU) is a unit of a hospital dedicated to treating patients with severe and potentially life-threatening illnesses and injuries that require close supervision and specialized care.

The ICU is staffed by highly trained medical personnel in various roles and has life-saving machines readily available in case they’re needed. In addition, some hospitals have ICUs dedicated to specific conditions and medical staff trained for the type of care required.

What is the difference between an ICU nurse and a registered nurse (RN)?

ICU nurses and RNs differ in their work settings and approaches to patient care. An RN is a nurse with the necessary education and a license to provide direct patient care. 

An ICU nurse is a registered nurse with specialized experience caring for patients with severe, potentially life-threatening illnesses and injuries. 

What qualifications does an ICU nurse need?

To become an ICU nurse, you need an associate's degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). While each of these degrees provides the education necessary to become an ICU nurse, a BSN is recommended, as it offers more training and may allow better opportunities in the workforce.

After receiving a nursing degree, you need a license to practice nursing. You can get one by registering as an RN and obtaining a passing grade on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). You can then start applying for positions in the ICU.

What work does an ICU nurse do day to day?

Working in the ICU is challenging and requires nurses to be alert and focused throughout their shifts. They have many duties to perform, which could be interrupted by an emergency at any time, and they need to resume their workflow, completing each task so that each patient gets the attention they need.

An ICU nurse regularly performs a variety of tasks, which may include:

  • Assessing patients’ condition and reporting back to the treating physician

  • Checking vitals and dressing wounds

  • Supervising patients closely at all times

  • Cooperating with the rest of the staff in the ICU

  • Ordering diagnostic tests and discussing results with patients and their families

  • Operating medical equipment

  • Helping patients make important decisions about their health

  • Providing patients with support and compassion

  • Keeping family members updated on the condition of patients

  • Responding quickly to life or death emergencies

  • Administering medications

  • Monitoring medical devices

  • Transporting patients

  • Keeping all patient information confidential

Where do ICU nurses work?

Some hospitals have a general ICU, while others have specialty ICUs for patients who require advanced care for similar conditions.

Cardiac intensive care unit (CICU): Patients are treated for cardiac emergencies like heart attacks.

Neurological intensive care unit (neuro ICU): Patients are treated for conditions affecting the brain, such as aneurysms, tumors, and stroke.

Medical intensive care unit (MICU): Patients are treated for critical illnesses requiring close observation, such as sepsis, respiratory failure, and drug overdoses.

Trauma intensive care unit (trauma ICU): Located only in hospitals certified in trauma, patients are treated for life-threatening injuries, such as gunshot wounds, severe head injuries, and those recovering from complicated surgeries.

Psychiatric intensive care unit (PICU): Medical staff monitor patients experiencing intense psychological disturbances who are at risk of harming themselves or others.

Isolation intensive care unit (isolation ICU): For critical care patients who are at risk of spreading a contagious illness to other patients in the hospital.

Surgical intensive care unit (SICU): Managed by surgeons so they can closely monitor critically ill patients who are either waiting to have surgery or are recovering from surgery.

Geriatric intensive care unit (geriatric ICU): For treating severely sick or injured elderly patients who may be at a higher risk of infection or need to be monitored more closely.

Pediatric intensive care unit (PICU): Children are treated for various conditions, such as chronic asthma, severe infections, and near-drowning experiences.

Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU): For newborn patients, usually born premature, who are not yet able to leave the hospital safely.

What is it like to be an ICU nurse?

As an ICU nurse, it’s challenging work, but you’ll probably learn something new every day and significantly impact your patients' lives. Since critical care patients require more attention, ICU nurses typically have fewer patients than nurses in other hospital units and form closer bonds with the patients they treat. In addition, the long shifts allow for even deeper connections with patients and may help to understand better what they need.

It’s a high-stress job with a lot of pressure, but many find the work highly rewarding. It helps to compartmentalize your work and personal life and not let what happens at work affect you when you leave.

How much do ICU nurses make?

The median annual salary of an ICU nurse varies by state, with a range from $72,007 ($34.62 an hour) to $103,841 ($49.92 an hour) and a national average of $84,281.06 ($40.52 an hour).

Learn more: How much do ICU nurses make?

Are there different specialties of ICU nurses?

The American Board offers certifications for Specialty Nursing Certifications (ABSNC) to become board certified in your specialty or sub-specialty.

CCRN (Adult): For critical care nurses who treat adults with severe acute illnesses and injuries

CCRN (Pediatric): For critical care nurses who treat children in the PICU

CCRN (Neonatal): For critical care nurses who treat newborns in the NICU

CMC: For critical care nurses who treat cardiac patients in the CICU

CSC: For critical care nurses who treat cardiac surgery patients in the CICU and surgical ICU

Advantages and disadvantages of a career in an ICU

There are many great things about being a critical care nurse. However, it isn’t a job for everyone. It’s essential to be aware of the good and the bad, so you can make an informed decision about whether it’s the right career path for you.

Advantages of choosing a career as an ICU nurse

The advantages of being an ICU nurse include:

  • Lots of human interaction

  • Opportunities for learning and growth

  • Emotionally fulfilling

  • Making an impact in people’s lives

  • Fewer patients than other types of nursing

Disadvantages of choosing a career as an ICU nurse

The disadvantages of being an ICU nurse include:

  • Death is part of a typical day

  • Physically demanding

  • Emotionally stressful

  • Long work hours

How to become an ICU nurse

To become an ICU nurse, you need an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Once you complete your nursing degree, you must register for licensure and pass the national council licensure examination for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN).

When you receive your license, you can apply for jobs in the ICU. You don’t need more training or certification to continue to work in the ICU. However, further certification looks good to potential employers and may allow you more opportunities, especially if you want to work in a specialized ICU.

If you want specialty certification, first you have to complete at least 1,750 clinical hours working in a critical care setting over two years or complete a minimum of 2,000 hours in a clinical setting over at least five years. This will allow you to receive advanced certification from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN).

Some students decide to complete a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). This additional education and training may allow you more autonomy and authority in some instances of patient care, which would be an asset in the ICU.

Learn more: How to become an ICU nurse

How long does it take to become an ICU nurse

How long it takes to become an ICU nurse depends on your route. For example, you could become a critical care nurse in the shortest time if you start by getting an ADN. 

Most programs run for two years, but some last 18 months. Therefore, applying early for licensure in your state would become valid after you graduate and take the NCLEX-RN.

You could start looking for jobs in an ICU in 18 months, but this may not be practical for everyone. If you take a different path, it’ll take longer, but you would receive more thorough training and may be better prepared for the work.

A BSN usually takes 4 years to complete. Assuming you register early for licensure, it wouldn’t take much longer than that before you can start applying for jobs. If you want to prove your commitment, knowledge, and abilities, it’ll take an additional 2 to 5 years to complete the required hours of patient care before you can take an exam and become board certified. This way, it would take ‌either 6 or 9 years to become an ICU nurse with specialty certification.

Learn more: How long is nursing school?

If you’re prepared to work hard, adapt to any situation that may arise, and deal with some emotionally and physically challenging circumstances, you may thrive in a highly rewarding career as an ICU nurse.

ShiftMed connects medical facilities with nurses looking for open shifts. As a nurse, you have the freedom to choose which shifts you want at which facilities, and when to receive payment. Sign up with ShiftMed today to get more shifts doing the job you love.