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The Ultimate List of Medications and Treatments for ICU Patients Every Nurse Should Know

The intensive care unit (ICU) is a critical environment where patients receive advanced monitoring and support for life-threatening conditions. The medications and treatments used in the ICU can make the difference between life and death for these vulnerable patients.

Sedation Medications

Sedation medications are often necessary in the ICU to keep patients comfortable, minimize anxiety and agitation, prevent accidental removal of tubes and lines, and facilitate mechanical ventilation. Common sedative medications used include:

  • Propofol – This is a preferred sedation medication in the ICU due to its rapid onset and short duration of action. Side effects can include low blood pressure and respiratory depression.
  • Midazolam – A benzodiazepine sedative that provides anxiety relief and amnesia. It has a longer duration than propofol. Side effects include respiratory depression.
  • Dexmedetomidine – Provides sedation and analgesia without respiratory depression. It can cause bradycardia and hypotension.


Vasopressors help increase blood pressure in shock states by causing vasoconstriction. They are often necessary to maintain perfusion to vital organs. Examples include:

  • Norepinephrine – The most commonly used first-line vasopressor in the ICU. Causes vasoconstriction and increases heart rate.
  • Vasopressin – Can be used as an adjunct to norepinephrine. Often used when high doses of other vasopressors are needed.
  • Dopamine – Increases heart rate and contractility. Can decrease renal blood flow so not preferred as first-line.

Mechanical Ventilation

Many ICU patients require assistance breathing from a mechanical ventilator. Key concepts include:

  • Modes – Volume, pressure, and dual control modes. Settings customized to patient condition.
  • Monitoring – Continuous pulse oximetry, end-tidal CO2, and arterial blood gases.
  • Adjuncts – Prone positioning, recruitment maneuvers, inhaled nitric oxide.
  • Weaning – Progressive reduction in ventilator support as patient improves.

Careful ventilator management and monitoring is crucial to providing lung-protective ventilation.


Meeting nutritional requirements can improve outcomes in critically ill patients. Options include:

  • Enteral nutrition – Delivering liquid nutrition formula through nasogastric or orogastric tubes. Preferred when gut function allows.
  • Parenteral nutrition – Delivering nutrients intravenously when enteral route not feasible. Risk of infection.
  • Immune Nutrition – Formulas enriched with arginine, glutamine, antioxidants. May reduce infections.

Determining appropriate nutritional goals and best route is a key part of ICU care.

Renal Replacement Therapy

Acute kidney injury is common in ICU patients. Renal replacement therapy with dialysis filters the blood to remove waste products and fluid. Types include:

  • Intermittent hemodialysis – Done for set time periods every 1-2 days.
  • Sustained low-efficiency dialysis (SLED) – Continuous over longer periods but with lower blood flow.
  • Continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT) – 24 hour continuous dialysis. More physiologic.

Nursing Abroad Doctors

CRRT is often used in hemodynamically unstable patients who cannot tolerate rapid fluid shifts.

Infection Prevention

Infections significantly increase morbidity and mortality in the ICU. Preventative measures include:

  • Hand hygiene – Frequent hand washing or alcohol-based rubs are critical before interacting with patients.
  • Ventilator bundles – Evidence-based practices to reduce ventilator-associated pneumonia.
  • Catheter and line care – Strict sterile technique for insertion and maintenance.
  • Antimicrobial stewardship – Judicious antibiotic use to reduce resistance.

Infection control policies help protect patients during their vulnerable ICU stays.

Early Mobility

Early mobility counteracts complications of bed rest like muscle weakness and deconditioning. Mobilization interventions include:

  • Range of motion exercises – Passive and active movement of limbs and joints by providers.
  • Getting patients out of bed – Sitting in chair, standing, walking. Progress activity as tolerated.
  • Mobility equipment – Devices to assist with safe movement like walkers and harnesses.

Despite barriers like lines and tubes, early mobilization is safe and effective for improving outcomes.


Point-of-care ultrasound at bedside is increasingly used for rapid diagnostic information and procedure guidance. ICU applications include:

  • Hemodynamic assessment – Cardiac output, volume status, vascular flow.
  • Thoracic ultrasound – Pneumonia, pleural effusion, pulmonary edema evaluations.
  • Line placement – Real-time imaging to guide central and arterial line insertion.

Ultrasound facilitates clinical decision-making and makes procedures safer.

ICU-Specific Equipment

The ICU contains specialized equipment not found elsewhere in hospitals. Examples include:

  • Mechanical ventilators – Sophisticated devices to support breathing.
  • CRRT machines – Provide continuous dialysis therapies.
  • ECMO – Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation for cardiac/respiratory failure refractory to conventional therapies.
  • Intracranial pressure monitors – Measure pressure inside the skull.

Familiarity with the setup, operation, and maintenance of these devices is essential.

Multidisciplinary Teams

Given the complex, high-acuity patients, multiple clinical specialties collaborate in the ICU:

  • Intensivists – Specially trained critical care physicians who coordinate care.
  • Nurses – ICU nurses have advanced skills and close patient contact.
  • Respiratory therapists – Manage mechanical ventilation and oxygen needs.
  • Pharmacists – Help with complex medication regimens and dosing.
  • Physical/occupational therapists – Help patients regain function and mobility.

This interprofessional teamwork facilitates integrated patient care.

In summary, medications like sedatives and vasopressors along with interventions like mechanical ventilation and early mobilization are routinely used in the ICU to support patients through critical illness.

The multidisciplinary team works closely together to provide coordinated care, utilizing specialized equipment and the latest evidence-based practices, to give patients their best chance of recovery.

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