Intensive care nurses work in a specialized area of medicine to ensure that critically ill patients as well as their families receive the treatment and emotional support needed to overcome potentially life-threatening conditions. As essential members of the critical care team, ICU nurses are found working in a variety of medical settings, including cardiac care units, telemetry units, progressive care departments, emergency rooms, recovery rooms, intensive care units, outpatient surgery centers, clinics, and managed care organizations. Whether they specialize in treating adults, children, or newborns, intensive care units use their in-depth understanding of human anatomy and specialized nursing skills to help save countless lives across America.


Based on data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average yearly salary for intensive care nurses and other registered nurses is reported at $68,910, which can be translated to a mean hourly wage of $33.13. ICU nurses working for general medical and surgical hospitals can expect to earn slightly more at $70,590 each year, but the highest annual salaries are reported in outpatient care centers where $74,100 is the average.

Beginning Salary

Right out of nursing school, the average starting salary for registered nurses in intensive care units and other critical care settings is $45,630. That being said, there is room for tremendous salary advancement in the nursing field and RNs with 15 or more years of experience can make over six-figures each year at an average of $96,320.

Key Responsibilities

Intensive care nurses are given the responsibility of providing medical services to patients with serious acute illnesses and injuries that require close monitoring, such as a heart attack, stroke, respiratory failure, severe head trauma, shock, and other grave health problems. On a typical day, ICU nurses will assess patients’ condition, implement patient care plans, treat wounds, provide advanced life support, record vital signs, operate medical equipment, administer IV fluids, order diagnostic testing, assist physicians in performing procedures, offer support to patient families, and respond to life-saving situations with appropriate nursing protocol. In some cases, intensive care nurses will also be responsible for acting as advocates for patients before, during, and after major surgical procedures.

Necessary Skills

For success in this fast-paced nursing position, it is essential that intensive care nurses are proficient in a wide variety of high-level nursing skills to act fast on their feet in caring for patients with potentially life-threatening conditions. Intensive care nurses must excel at international communication, strategic planning, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, and leadership for coordinating with other members of the critical care team. Since they spend the majority of their workday with patients suffering severe medical problems, ICU nurses should also be compassionate, sympathetic, emotionally stable, responsible, organized, and caring to create a humane environment for optimizing patient healing.

Degree and Education Requirements

In order to specialize as an intensive care nurse, you must first become a registered nurse through your state’s board of nursing. Although requirements may vary depending on your state of residence, there are typically three different paths towards becoming an RN. You may choose to complete a diploma or associate’s degree at a two-year community college in an accredited nursing program, or pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing from a college or university. Due to the rising complexity of the nursing profession, many employers will now prefer nurses who have completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree and may even provide compensation for returning to school in an RN-to-BSN program.

Pros and Cons of this Position

Like every other job, becoming an intensive care nurse has its rewards and challenges. On one hand, working in critical care nursing will enable you to work with far fewer patients, have more independent responsibilities, collaborate closely with physicians, and play a prominent role in saving the lives of seriously ill patients. However, before being drawn in by the booming demand and great salary potential, you need to be aware that being an intensive care nurse is not the perfect fit for everyone. You will have deal with emotional attachments to patients and likely cope with more deaths than other nursing specialties. You will also be expected to work long shifts in a high-stress work environment that comes with the threat of becoming injured and contracting a disease.

Getting Started

While earning your nursing degree, it is important to get started on a critical care nursing career by seeking clinical rotations in intensive care units or similar settings to gain work experience specifically in this specialty area. Upon graduation, you will be eligible for taking the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), which will provide you with the state RN license required for practicing independently. From there, you should apply for entry-level staff nursing positions in intensive care or coronary care units to acquire at least 1,750 hours of direct care with critically ill patients. Although not required, it is highly recommended that ICU nurses also earn professional credentials through the AACN as Certified Critical Care Nurses by passing the certification examination and completing continuing education to stay up-to-date on new developments in intensive care.

Future Outlook

As the baby boomer population continues to age and spark demand for an increased number of healthcare services, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment for intensive care nurses and other registered nurses will skyrocket faster than average by 19% before 2022. While there are currently 503,124 intensive care nurses in the United States currently caring for critically ill patients, the nation’s nursing shortage is expected to grow even more acute in this specialty area because of large staffing gaps in critical care settings. Qualified intensive care are likely to experience very promising job prospects with the potential for attractive incentives to bring their nursing expertise in caring for patients in adult critical care units, pediatric or neonatal ICUs, flight units, and other emergency departments.

Overall, critical care nursing is one of the most complex and challenging nursing specialties in which intensive care nurses utilize their high level of specialized training to provide essential services to vulnerable patients who are acutely ill or injured. If you are a registered nurse seeking to advance your career opportunities and truly make an impact in a fast-paced environment with high-risk patients, becoming an intensive care nurse could be an ideal fit.