After Leaving the ICU

Your dedicated medical team has decided that you are ready to leave the intensive care unit (ICU). This pamphlet will provide important information so that you and your loved ones know what to expect following discharge.

Amnesia

Your illness and the medications that you received to make you comfortable while in the ICU may cause your memory of the hospital stay to be hazy or absent. Instead, you may recall nightmares or hallucinations, or even believe that people tried to hurt you. A family member or your physician can provide you with information that you might not remember. You may wish to write down this information and refer to it as your memory returns to normal. You may never recall exactly what happened during your stay.

Eating/Nutrition

No doubt your eating habits were affected by your ICU stay, because of dietary restrictions or the medications you received. You may not have the same appetite or food may taste different to you. Temporary changes may include foods tasting saltier, sweeter, and taking on an unusual metallic taste. Until your appetite returns to normal, it may be easier to eat small frequent meals of foods you like, supplemented by healthy snacks between meals. Take your time eating and enjoy a variety of foods daily. Make certain to include fruits, vegetables, dairy products, breads, and meats (poultry and fish) because a well-balanced diet will help you to conserve energy, fight infection, and heal properly.

Smoking

You may not have been smoking for sometime now, so this is a real opportunity to quit smoking all together. The single most important thing you can do to help your lungs heal is to not smoke. In addition, smoking can interfere with such activities as wound healing and appetite. Each time you say no to a cigarette, you add 5 minutes to your life. Find a substitute for smoking: go for a walk if you are able, chew sugar-free gum, exercise, or start a new activity that interests you. Here are some useful resources to help you stop smoking:

Your physician will be happy to discuss other options to help you stop smoking for good.

Depression

Your recent illness probably was a difficult time, both physically and emotionally. It is common to “feel down” after being critically ill. You may experience such symptoms as sadness, crying, early waking or other changes in sleep patterns, poor appetite, lack of energy, or loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable, in your appearance, or in your family and friends. This cycle may be broken by trying to have a positive attitude, resuming your favorite activities, and exercising. If you have these “blue” feelings occasionally, it might be a part of the healing process, but if they persist, you could be depressed. If you are concerned that you are not feeling better, talk to your doctor, who can recommend other forms of support.

Anxiety

Feeling anxious after being critically ill is normal. Physical symptoms may include dry mouth, rapid breathing, rapid pulse or heart beat, cold sweats, butterflies or tightness in the stomach. You also may have some mental issues like difficulty remembering or concentrating, problems sleeping, and lack of self-confidence. You might be restless, fidgety, feel unsatisfied, have racing thoughts, be unable to listen closely, or lose your sense of humor. It may help to exercise or to talk about these feelings with someone you trust.

Panic Attacks/Phobias

Anxiety can lead to panic attacks, but these are not dangerous events. Such attacks usually last 10-30 minutes. Use the relaxation techniques in this pamphlet to help you cope with these episodes. If you avoid situations that cause unpleasant feelings, you may have a phobia; you can manage these fears by pretending you are in the problem situation and visualizing how you might resolve it. Tell your doctor about these events if they continue to affect your recovery.

Stress/Relaxation

Certain levels of stress can be healthy, helping you to accomplish daily tasks. But as stress levels rise, you become tense, angry, tired, and irritable. Being under constant stress can increase your risk for illness. When you recognize that you are becoming overly stressed, use these relaxation techniques.

  • Perform deep breathing exercises in a quiet location.
  • Take a “mental vacation” by closing your eyes and imagining yourself in a place that you like.
  • Set aside time each day to do something you enjoy.
  • Remember to exercise at a level appropriate for you.

Exercise

Exercise will help reduce stress and anxiety while helping you regain your strength and appetite. Initially you may become easily tired because of the effects of your illness, medications, or dietary change. Your muscles may be smaller and weaker after being critically ill. Any exercise is good, and it is best if you gradually increase your level of activity. Talk to your doctor about what exercises are appropriate for you.

Sex

It is normal for you and your partner to have a decrease in sex drive after a critical illness. Lack of interest and feeling too tired for sex are common responses. Discuss your feelings with your partner to keep the lines of communication open. Remember that holding hands, massaging, cuddling, and comforting are all ways to be intimate.

Share this pamphlet with family members or friends who can assist and support you in recovering from your critical care experience. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of members of your healthcare team in your follow-up visits.

Resources

Publication Date: 2007
Page Last Reviewed: July 28, 2011
Reviewed By: Jonathan D. Feldman, MD