Get information to support you and your loved one with recovery from ICU.

Recovery from critical illness

Recovery from critical illness takes time. It depends on many things, such as the length and severity of the illness.

Many patients make a full recovery. Some patients may remain on medication and require further treatment.

Below are common problems recovering patients may experience and ways to help:

Amnesia

The patient’s illness and the medications that he or she received to make them comfortable while in the ICU may cause the patient’s memory of this time to be hazy or absent. 

A family member or the ICU staff can provide the patient with information that they might not remember. 

The patient may wish to write down this information and refer to it as his or her memory returns to normal. Some patients never recall exactly what happened while in ICU.

Mood and memory

It is common to experience memory problems and fluctuating moods. Common symptoms include sadness, anger, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating and lack of interest or energy.

Speak to a health care professional if mood problems become worse. 

Sleep

After critical illness, sleeping patterns may change. Speak to a nurse if sleeping becomes a problem. Some patients may experience nightmares or flashbacks to their time in ICU. This can be frightening, and should be brought to the attention of the nurse. 

Body image

Common body changes include weight loss, swollen body parts, hair loss and drier skin. These are the result of procedures while in the ICU. These changes are usually temporary. Most will fade and some will disappear over time. 

Voice and breathing

As a result of having a tube in the wind pipe, some patients have husky voice after leaving ICU. This is usually temporary and the doctor will be able to offer advice about this.

Some patients experience wheezing, congestion or shortness of breath. Medication may be prescribed to help open up the lung passages to make it easier to breath. Respiratory therapists and physiotherapists can also offer techniques and exercises to help with breathing. 

Weakness and fatigue

It is common to feel weak and tired after ICU. Arms and legs may feel heavy and be swollen with fluid which makes moving around more of an effort.

Joints may feel stiff and painful. Physiotherapists can help design an exercise program to rebuild muscle strength and mobility over time. The nurse can provide medication for pain. 

Pain

Patients can experience pain for many reasons. Some may have pre-existing or chronic conditions that cause pain, such as arthritis. Others may experience pain as a result of a recent surgery, injury or critical illness. 

Report any type of discomfort or pain to the nurse so that it can be assessed and treated promptly. Most pain can be controlled with medication alone or in combination with other therapies.

Nutrition

After critical illness, it is common for a patient’s appetite to decrease or for their sense of taste to change. These temporary changes may include foods tasting saltier, sweeter and taking on an unusual metallic taste.

Eating nutritious meals is important to recovery. Eating a little and often may be easier than attempting a large plate of food. Speak to a dietitian to help with meal choices and planning.