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Day 12 HealthUnlocked Advent Calendar Blog ICUsteps

Door 12: Why do people in ICU suffer delirium, terrifying nightmares and paranoia?

A critical illness can strike anyone at any time without warning. Critically ill patients are amongst the most seriously ill patients in hospital. In the UK, over 270,000 people a year are admitted to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) needing specialised monitoring, treatment and attention for a life-threatening illness or injury.

Being admitted to ICU

Patients can be admitted to ICU for a range of different reasons, including deterioration from an illness, complications from surgery or a serious accident. They may be unaware of being admitted to ICU due to the severity of their illness. It can be frightening for relatives to see loved ones connected to many machines, tubes and cables. Many patients will be sedated (or ‘in an induced coma’) and intubated on a life-support machine to help them breathe.

Nightmares and hallucinations

Patients may suffer delirium, terrifying nightmares, hallucinations and paranoia, often believing the doctors and nurses are trying to kill them or see things that do not exist. Along with how severely ill patients are, the powerful drugs that have to be used to treat them can add to the issues they face, leaving frightening memories, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) long after discharge.


Patients that survive critical illness are often left with physical, psychological and cognitive issues that need support and rehabilitation. There is no set time limit to recovery as everyone is different, but recovery is measured in months and years rather than days and weeks. Many patients suffer severe weakness and may need physiotherapy, as they can lose up to 2% of their muscle mass a day while on a ventilator. They may require counselling to help come to terms with the trauma they have been through and help them deal with the psychological legacy of critical illness. Support and understanding is hugely important for recovering ICU patients. Despite the issues we face on our road to recovery, just being able to talk to others who have been there too and truly understand us, can make the challenges of recovery and rehabilitation that much easier.

Online support

The ICUsteps online community on HealthUnlocked brings people together who have been in ICU, or affected by it. Together they share experiences their stories of critical illness and support others in their recovery. The community enjoys a membership of over 1,700 people.

About ICUsteps

The organisation ICUsteps was formed in 2005 by ex-ICU patients, relatives and healthcare professionals, who recognised the unmet need for support that recovering patients. Our aim was to improve the care and support available to patients recovering from critical illness during their long recovery.

Since 2005 ICUsteps has grown greatly, establishing a network of local support groups around the UK and beyond, assisting researchers by providing a patient voice and becoming an authority in the production of intensive care patient and relative information.

Critical care may save our lives, but we need support and rehabilitation to give that life back to us. We believe that by working together ex-patients, relatives and healthcare professionals can ensure recovery from critical illness isn’t any harder than it has to be. For more information, visit icusteps.org

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1 Reply

thank you for this very practical, sensible, and also very empathic, post.


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