Decoding Critical Care Jargon: Common ICU Abbreviations for Nurses

by | Sep 14, 2023 | Critical Care | 0 comments

In the fast-paced environment of the ICU, effective communication is crucial. Understanding the common ICU abbreviations used in patient charts, orders, and reports is essential for providing optimal care. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the most common ICU abbreviations, providing you with a clear understanding of what each one means. Let’s embark on this journey together, empowering you to provide the best care possible for your patients.

most common icu abbreviations for nurses

Common ICU Abbreviations

We will go through the abbreviation, what it stands for, a definition of the term, and an example of how it could be used in a sentence on a nursing unit.

A quick note: Your hospital likely has a list of approved abbreviations to prevent critical miscommunications. The Joint Commission has a Do Not Use list of abbreviations that you should stay away from using (don’t worry, it’s very short!). An approved abbreviation is one that is acceptable to use in patient charting, however all of these are commonly used jargon you will hear in the critical care environment.


Stands For: Arterial Blood Gas

Definition: A test that measures the acidity (pH) and the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in arterial blood. It provides critical information about a patient’s respiratory and metabolic status.

Used in a Sentence: “Hey, can you draw an ABG on my patient?”


Stands For: Acute Kidney Injury

Definition: A sudden decrease in kidney function, often characterized by a rise in serum creatinine levels. AKI can result from various factors, including dehydration, sepsis, or medications.

Used in a Sentence: “The patient developed AKI after contrast from the CT and early sepsis.”


Stands For: Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Definition: A severe lung condition characterized by widespread inflammation in the lungs, leading to difficulty breathing and a significant drop in oxygen levels.

Used in a Sentence: “The patient was admitted with pneumonia, but it’s progressed to ARDS.”


Stands For: Central Venous Pressure

Definition: Measures the pressure in the large veins near the heart, reflecting the volume of blood returning to the heart and the ability of the heart to pump effectively.

Used in a Sentence: “They discontinued the CVP monitoring in room 9.”


Stands For: Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation

Definition: A serious condition characterized by abnormal blood clotting and bleeding throughout the body. It is often a result of severe infections, trauma, or other critical illnesses.

Used in a Sentence: “I’m worried this patient is developing DIC.”


Stands For: Do Not Resuscitate

Definition: A legal order indicating that a patient does not wish to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in the event of cardiac arrest. Patients may wish to have a DNR but still pursue other treatments. This is communicating that if their heart were to stop or they were to stop breathing, they don’t want CPR. It is important to respect and follow the patient’s wishes while providing comfort care.

Used in a Sentence: “The patient in room 12 has decided to be a DNR after talking to the hospice doctor. She’s getting the paperwork now.”


Stands For: Electrocardiogram

Definition: A test that records the electrical activity of the heart, which can be imperative in clinical decision making and monitoring. It helps in diagnosing various heart conditions, including arrhythmias and ischemia.

Used in a Sentence: “We need to get an EKG on room 19 STAT. Is the order in the chart?”

(Need an ECG cheatsheet? Click here to get one for free!)


Stands For: Glasgow Coma Scale

Definition: A neurological assessment tool used to evaluate a patient’s level of consciousness and neurological function. It involves assessing eye, verbal, and motor responses.

Used in a Sentence: “His GCS is only 4.”


Stands For: Intracranial Pressure

Definition: Indicates the pressure inside the skull and on the brain tissue. Monitoring ICP is crucial for patients with head injuries or neurological conditions.

Used in a Sentence: “The patient in bed 7’s ICP keeps climbing. I’m going to call the neurosurgeon.”


Stands For: Intravenous

Definition: Refers to the administration of fluids, medications, or blood products directly into a vein. IV therapy is crucial for maintaining hydration and delivering essential treatments.

Used in a Sentence: “His IV looks a little red. We might need to change it today.”


Stands For: Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus

Definition: A type of bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics and can cause severe infections. MRSA is a significant concern in the ICU due to its antibiotic resistance.

Used in a Sentence: “She’s on isolation for MRSA in her leg wound.”


Stands For: Nasogastric Tube

Definition: A flexible tube inserted through the nose and down the throat into the stomach. It is used for feeding, administering medications, or removing gastric contents. Here’s a clinical example of when a patient needs an NG tube.

Used in a Sentence: “I need to drop an NGT in room 17. Can you grab the supplies for me?”


Stands For: Nil Per Os (Nothing by Mouth)

Definition: An order to withhold oral intake of food or fluids for a specified period, often before surgery or certain medical procedures. It helps prevent complications such as aspiration and is often ordered on stroke patients until they are cleared to safely swallow.

Used in a Sentence: “Surgery is scheduled for 1600 tomorrow. What time do you want him to be NPO?” or “Sorry, he can’t have anything to eat since he’s NPO.”


Stands For: Post-Anesthesia Care Unit

Definition: The unit where patients are monitored and cared for immediately after surgery or a medical procedure under anesthesia. It ensures a smooth transition from anesthesia to recovery.

Used in a Sentence: “She’s going to the OR to clean out the wound. She’ll recover in PACU before coming back up to the unit.”


Stands For: Pulmonary Embolism

Definition: A potentially life-threatening condition where a blood clot (usually from a deep vein in the legs) travels to the lungs, causing a sudden blockage of blood flow.

Used in a Sentence: “A few days ago, she showed signs of a DVT and now we’re evaluating her for a PE.”


Stands For: Point of Care

Definition: Refers to tests or measurements that are performed at the patient’s bedside, providing immediate results for timely decision-making. Common POC tests include blood glucose monitoring, hemoccult, pregnancy tests, PT/INR and more.

Used in a Sentence: “Have you done your POC competencies yet?”


Stands For: Oxygen Saturation

Definition: This abbreviation refers to the percentage of hemoglobin binding sites in the bloodstream occupied by oxygen. It is a critical measure of a patient’s respiratory status, often monitored using a pulse oximeter. It can be done intermittently or continuously.

Used in a Sentence: “His sats are lower than they were earlier,” or “He’s sating really well now that we’ve increased the oxygen.”


Stands For: Urinary Tract Infection

Definition: An infection involving any part of the urinary system, including the bladder, urethra, or kidneys. UTIs are common in critically ill patients due to catheterization.

Used in a Sentence: “We need to get that foley catheter discontinued before the patient gets a UTI.”


Stands For: Ventilator-Associated Pneumonia

Definition: A type of pneumonia that develops in patients on mechanical ventilation. It is caused by bacteria entering the lungs through the ventilator tubing.

Used in a Sentence: “The oral care on this patient hasn’t been done in 24 hours. I’m concerned he’s going to develop VAP.”

Final Thoughts on Common ICU Abbreviations

Effective communication is the cornerstone of nursing practice in the ICU. When you understand the unique medical language that people use both in charting and in conversation, it can help you feel much more confident and even expedite clinical decision making.

If you enjoyed this post and want me to add even more, let me know in the comments!

Prepare to Be an Amazing ICU Nurse

If you’re new to the ICU world and want to get ahead of the game before your first day on the unit, check out my crash course for new ICU nurses, Breakthrough ICU.

Trying to build your confidence as a new ICU nurse?

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Breakthrough ICU from FreshRN is a 6-week, online course specifically crafted for brand new ICU nurses who want to get ahead of the game. So that instead of merely surviving orientation, they’re confidently thriving all the way through. With Breakthrough ICU, it’s like we took all of the highlighted info from the nursing textbooks, mixed in our own experience, wisdom, and expertise, and packaged it in a way that it’s tangible, easy to digest and understand, and can be applied to your very next shift. You can start your ICU journey with your head held high (but not too high!) and your heart calm. 

More Resources for New ICU Nurses

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Hi, I’m Kati.

Kati Kleber, MSN RN is a nurse educator, author, national speaker, host of the FreshRN® Podcast, and owner of FreshRN® – an online platform created to educate, encourage, and motivate newly licensed nurses in innovative ways.

Connect with her on YouTube, Pinterest, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, and sign-up for her free email newsletter for new nurses.


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