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Intensive Care: A Guide for You and Your Family


Some of the machines that are used to monitor or give treatments to your loved one have alarms. These alarms go off for many reasons and usually it’s nothing for you to worry about. It may just be that a medicine is finished, or an IV bag is getting close to being empty. The alarms are set to help the staff closely watch your family member or friend.

Ventilator – A breathing machine that helps your loved one breathe when they’re not strong enough or can’t breathe well enough on their own. To help get the oxygen directly to the lungs a tube is put into their throat by either the mouth or the nose. This is called an endotracheal tube or ET tube.

BiPAP or CPAP – These types of breathing machines help keep the airway pressures up so that it’s easier to breathe without having to put a tube in. These treatments are given by using a tight fitting mask over the nose or mouth.

  • BiPAP = bilevel positive airway pressure
  • CPAP = continuous positive airway pressure

Suction – While the ET or breathing tube is in, staff will need to help your family member clear any saliva, mucus, or fluid from their mouth or lungs. They do this by suctioning these secretions. A thin tube is put into the breathing tube and then the mucus is sucked up. This may cause your family member to cough or retch (gag). This may be uncomfortable for them but is a normal reaction and they usually settle quickly.

Fluids – While your loved one is critically ill they may not be able to drink any or enough fluids. The fluids they need are given in the intravenous (IV). Some people need a lot of fluid to help keep their blood pressure from going too low. Some of this fluid may slowly leak out of the veins because your loved one is too sick to move or use their muscles very much. This may make them look puffy or bloated after a few days. As they start to get better this will get less, but it may take several days for your loved one to look “normal” again.

Dialysis – This is a treatment that helps the kidneys filter the blood. It can help get rid of extra fluid if it needs to be removed in a short time. Usually as your family member starts to get well they will need this type of treatment less and less. In some cases it can take days to weeks for the kidneys to recover fully.

Other treatments that may be used for your loved one may include:

  • pacemakers
  • heating or cooling blankets
  • chest tubes
  • central intravenous lines

Your nurse can explain these treatments to you and how they’re helping your family member.

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