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Critical Care Nurse

Critical Care Nurses (CCNs), also known as ICU Nurses, care for patients with complex, life-threatening conditions in a variety of critical care settings. Many patients need oxygenation support and are receiving crucial continuous IV medication drips.

CCNs quickly identify when a patient decompensates and alerts the rest of the critical care team. They are experts at close monitoring and assist their patients progress from severe illness to stable health. CCNs also provide emotional support and education to their patients and their families.

Education Requirements

All nurse specialty areas require an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree and successfully pass the state’s NCLEX-RN exam. Some hospitals prefer you to have a BSN but may accept an ADN.

How to advance/career pathway

Critical care nurses must be BCLS certified but also need ACLS certification. Many places prefer you have at least one year of experience in Med/Surg or a similar setting to grow your skills.

Apply for work in your critical care interest area. These units often offer internships and residencies to learn needed skills:

  • Adult Intensive care unit (ICU)
  • Pediatric ICU
  • Neonatal ICU

Other high acuity areas that are considered to be critical care: Emergency department, Step-down units, Cardiac care units, Telemetry units, or Progressive care units.

You can apply for your CCRN in (Adult, Pediatric or Neonatal) from the AACN after completing the required clinical hours in either two or five years.

You can also advance by getting an MSN or doctoral degree with a critical care focus as a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) or an acute care nurse practitioner specializing in areas such as ED or ICU.


  • Assess and monitor patients for changes in ventilation, cardiac and renal status
  • Administer IV medications, dressing changes, catheter care and prevent skin breakdown
  • Attend rounds with the care team and report patient status or needs
  • Provide family and patient reassurance and teaching


Adult, pediatric, or neonatal settings all have different cases, as does surgical ICU or medical ICUs.

How to become a

Critical Care Nurse

  1. Complete an ADN or BSN program in nursing
  2. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for your RN license
  3. Have one to two years of experience working as an RN in a Med-Surg or similar setting 
  4. Apply to work in a critical care unit
  5. Apply for your CCRN after completing the required clinical hours

Specialty Groups and Communities

American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

  • Mission: “The mission of the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), a subsidiary of the American Nurses Association, is to promote excellence in nursing and healthcare globally through credentialing programs.”
  • Cost: Access provided through membership of the ANA; annual membership begins at $174 and can vary depending on your state of residence.
  • Perks: Advance your career with free development resources and webinars; stay current with the most up-to-date nursing news; save money with big discounts on CE, certification, publications and more; network and connect with Registered Nurses (RN) for support and advice; make your voice heard with opportunities to tell policymakers what you think; and, receive state nurse association member benefits.


American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)

  • Mission: “Patients and their families rely on nurses at the most vulnerable times of their lives. Acute and critical care nurses rely on AACN for expert knowledge and the influence to fulfill their promise to patients and their families. AACN drives excellence because nothing less is acceptable.”
  • Cost: $52-78, annually.
  • Perks: Access to unlimited free CEs keep your knowledge – and your license – up to date, AACN’s award-winning journals put the latest news and views at your fingertips, exclusive access to clinical toolkits and evidence-based resources supports optimal patient outcomes, innovative online learning programs hone your skills and advance your career, and discounts for certification, conferences and online products help you maintain your edge, and more.

The Pros

  • Challenging, advanced learning opportunities with complicated patients
  • Develop close relationships with patients in critical conditions and their families 
  • Rewarding to see the recovery of patients from life-threatening conditions 
  • Work collaboratively with the critical care team

The Cons

  • Focus on critical care patients limits experiences with less intense medical needs
  • Stressful since patients may unexpectedly do poorly
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Personality Traits

  • Empathetic 
  • Clear, calm communicator 
  • Strong decision-maker
  • Critical thinker
  • Organized, meticulous
  • Detailed planner
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Average Salary

Critical care nurses typically make between $41k - $98k, with a median salary of $66,396. For the most up-to-date salary information, check out Salary Explorer.

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American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

  • CCRN (Adult, Pediatric or Neonatal)
  • CCRN-K (Adult, Pediatric or Neonatal) for nurse supervisors
  • CCRN-E (TeleICU, Acute/Critical Care)
  • PCCN & PCCN-K (Adult) Progressive Care Certified Nurse
  • CMC (Cardiac Medicine Certification)
  • CSC (Cardiac Surgery Certification) 

There are other certifications for CNSs and acute care nurse practitioners.

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Work Setting

Hospitals or emergency transport

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Interested in learning more about what it’s like to be a Critical Care Nurse? We spoke to one to find out. Read What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?