How to Become a Critical Care (ICU) Nurse: Salary, Job Description

Nurses wheel in patient on gurneyA critical care nurse is a licensed medical professional who provides optimal care for critically ill patients and their families. These nurses possess specialized medical skills, an in-depth knowledge of the human body and an understanding of the latest medical technology. Critical care nurses can specialize in treating adults, children or babies.

A registered nurse may work as a critical care nurse without additional education or advanced degrees. At least one professional organization offers certification in critical care nursing.

Most critical care nurses work in hospitals but some provide care in nursing homes, outpatient clinics, and flight units. Critical care nurses work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), sometimes known as the Critical Care Unit (CCU). These nurses care for patients of all ages.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide information on critical care nurses but the website does offer an overview of registered nurses. Salary information courtesy of

Nurse Salary and Employment Data

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Minimum Education Required Associate degree
Board Examinations needed NCLEX-RN, RN-BC
Average Annual Salary $67,957
# of Jobs (2012) 2,712,000
Job Outlook (2012 to 2022) 19% growth

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics and

How to become a critical care nurse

To become a critical care nurse, the candidate:

  • Must have an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and have passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN)
  • May pursue voluntary certification in critical care nursing

Education requirements

Candidates will already have graduated nursing school and passed board examinations to become a registered nurse. RNs may take advanced courses in critical care nursing.

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses offers online courses in critical care nursing. Online coursework covers anatomy and physiology of the heart, using electrocardiogram (ECG) equipment and interpreting results, troubleshooting pacemakers, medications used in critical care settings and working with heart patients.

Job description

Critical care nurses assess patients in critical condition and provide intensive therapy and intervention to those patients. In addition to administering medications and assessing pain, these healthcare professionals operate life support systems and evaluate patient vital signs and laboratory data to determine the best course of intervention. They also monitor patients for changes in status that could indicate decline in medical condition and institute appropriate interventions.

Critical care nurses set up and monitor advanced medical equipment, including heart monitors, ventilators, oxygen delivery devices and other medical devices essential to caring for the critical patient.

Critical care nurses must be active listeners and critical thinkers, able to gather information to come up with solutions to a patient’s health problem. These individuals must be service-oriented, always looking for ways to help people. A critical care nurse must be comfortable with computers and advanced medical technology, yet have stamina to match the physical demands of the job.

Critical care nurses report to the nurse manager of the critical care unit.

Career options

Critical care nurses work in hospitals, usually in a:

  • Intensive Care Unit (ICU)
  • Critical Care Unit (CCU)
  • Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide statistics for critical care nurses, the organization does expect jobs for registered nurses to grow 19 percent through 2022. The median annual wage for registered nurses was $65,470 in 2012, with the lowest 10 percent earning more than $45,040 and the top 10 percent garnering more than $94,720 that year.

Certification information

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses offers certification as a critical care nurse. This certification requires an exam. Any nurse who passes the exam may use the initials “CCRN” after his or her name to designate advanced training in providing critical care. Applicants based in the United States may take the exam online.

Professional organizations

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses: