Common Terminology

When you or a loved on are in the ICU, you may hear terms that are unfamiliar to you. Below is a list of commonly used terminology with a brief description.

Additional resources are available in these downloadable brochures:

Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)
Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococcus (VRE)
Clostridium Difficile (C.diff)
Standard and Isolation Procedures
Non-Medicine Pain Treatment Options
Managing Your Pain During Your Stay
Preventing Pressure Ulcers 


Patients are monitored continuously in ICU. When you hear an alarm it doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong, just that there’s something the staff need to be aware of.

Arterial Line

A special IV placed into the artery to continuously record blood pressure and to allow the sampling of blood without sticking the patient with a needle.

arterial line photo

Breathing Tube  (Endotracheal Tube)

A tube placed through the mouth into the windpipe to deliver air and oxygen to the patient’s lungs and remove secretions. Patients cannot talk while the tube is in place.

To “intubate” means to insert the breathing tube, while “extubate” means to remove the breathing tube.

breathing tube (endotracheal tube) photo

Mechanical Ventilator (Breathing Machine)

A machine attached to a breathing tube to help a patient breathe in a specific depth and pattern. The ventilator also provides oxygen.

“Weaning” means decreasing the amount of work the mechanical ventilator does and gradually allowing the patient to breathe on their own.

mechanical ventilator (breathing machine) photo

Central Line

(downloadable brochure)

A catheter that is inserted into a large vein (usually in the neck, groin or arm) that allows continuous delivery of fluids and medication.

central line photo

Chest Tube

A tube placed in the patient’s chest cavity and hooked to suction to remove air or fluid that prevents the lung from fully expanding.

chest tube photo


(downloadable brochure)

A state of mental confusion that can occur as a result of illness, surgery or with use of some medications.


A machine that produces a tracing of the electrical activity of the heart to determine if the heart is functioning properly.

Feeding Tube

Tube placed through the mouth or nose and into the digestive system to provide nutrition to patients who cannot swallow food.

Foley Catheter

(downloadable brochure)

A flexible tube placed in the bladder to remove and accurately measure urine.

foley catheter photo

Infusion Pumps

Machines that control the amount of fluid or medication that a patient receives.

infusion pump photo

Intravenous Line (IV)

A small plastic tube placed into a patient’s vein to deliver fluid and medication.

intravenous line (IV) photo


Keeping patients who have communicable illnesses or who are at risk for acquiring infections safe through the use of special protective equipment.


A TV/computer-like screen that displays many different waves, each one representing pressures and body activities.

monitor photo

Nasogastric Tube (NG Tube)

A plastic tube inserted through the nose into the stomach to allow direct removal of stomach contents.

nasogastric tube (NG tube) photo

Oxygen Sensor

A piece of tape with a light sensor that is placed on a finger or forehead to determine the patient’s blood oxygen level.

oxygen sensor photo


Medications that help patients sleep or rest.


Placing a catheter into a breathing tube to remove excess secretions and allow the patient to breathe more comfortably.

suctioning photo

Tracheostomy tube (Trach Tube)

A small plastic tube placed through a hole in the patient's neck into the windpipe.  This helps a patient breathe better and allows them to be weaned from the breathing machine.

tracheostomy tube (trach tube) photo

Vital Signs

Vital signs include blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature and are taken at frequent intervals depending on patient condition.