Critical Care Nurse

Lindsay Smith
Last updated at September 16, 2021

Critical care nurses (CCNs) help patients heal from life-threatening illnesses and injuries. In fact, of all the patients in a given facility, CCNs care for the most at-risk. For example, patients considered high-risk could be recovering from surgery or struggling with a chronic illness.

The first intensive care units appeared in the 1950s. The purpose of these units was to deliver treatment to extremely sick patients who required consistent, one on one attention from a registered nurse. And while the ICUs are considered the birthplace of critical care nursing, they are not the only department where CCNs deliver important care.

As skilled healthcare professionals, critical care nurses work in burn centers, trauma centers, operating rooms, emergency departments, neonatal intensive care units, pediatric units, and other medical settings where patients require concentrated care. To be successful, you'll need to be caring, a team player, intuitive, and adaptable.

What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

CCNs provide intensive care to patients that have been critically injured or are healing from a major illness. Caring for critically ill patients requires a high degree of focus. In fact, on a typical day, a CCN might be required to help stabilize a patient experiencing a medical emergency, administer intravenous (IV) fluids, and administer medications. Other tasks might include:

  • Inserting a catheter
  • Treating wounds and injuries
  • Performing various diagnostic tests
  • Communicating with a patient’s family members
  • Monitoring a patient's ventilator or other life-sustaining devices
  • Working with other nurses, therapists, physicians, and specialists to coordinate patient care

Roles Of The CCN

Based on the March 1996 report, The Registered Nurse Population, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), there are 273,850 nurses in the U.S. who care for critically ill patients in the hospital setting. The critical care nurse accounts for approximately 24 percent of the number of nurses employed in a healthcare facility setting.

Managed care has also fueled an increasing interest in advanced practice nurses in the acute- and critical care settings. Within the critical care setting, they’re most often Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS) and Acute-Care Nurse Practitioners (ACNPs). They demonstrate a high level of independence and in many states, they are now entitled to direct financial reimbursement, much like physicians.

Critical Care Nurse Specialties

A Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) is an expert clinician in a particular specialty. A CCN is considered a CNS.

The CNS is in charge of the identification and treatment of clinical issues as well as in the treatments for those problems to enhance care for patients and families. They offer direct patient care, such as assessing, diagnosing, planning, and prescribing pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic management of medical problems.

Acute Care Nurse Practitioners (ACNPs), in the critical-care setting, concentrate on making clinical decisions associated with complex patient care problems encountered within the acute-care setting. Their routines include health background and risk appraisal, interpretation of diagnostic tests, and offering treatment, which can consist of prescribing medication.

The critical care nurse specialty includes the sub-specialties of the adult, pediatric, and neonatal nursing practices. As a CCN, you can choose to specialize in many different areas including:

  • Trauma center burn units
  • Neonatal ICUs
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Post-surgical and progressive care units
  • Transport drives or flights
  • Long-term and acute care facilities

During the COVID-19 pandemic, critical care nurses have also traveled to various hot zones across the world to assist with the most critically ill patients.

What’s It Like Working as a CCN?

CCNs practice in settings where patients require complex assessment, high-intensity therapies and interventions, and continuous care. The critical care nurse relies upon specialized anatomical expertise, skills, and experience to deliver care to patients and families. When working in harmony, this creates environments that are healing, humane, and caring.

The CCN works in many settings, filling many different roles. They may be bedside clinicians, nurse educators, nurse researchers, nurse managers, clinical nurse specialists, PACU nurses, and nurse practitioners.

Within the hospital setting, the critical care nurse is found wherever there are critically ill patients: intensive-care units (ICUs); pediatric ICUs, neonatal ICUs, cardiac care units, cardiac catheter labs, telemetry units, progressive care units, emergency departments, and recovery rooms.

Based on the March 1996 DHHS report, 60 percent of all nurses are employed in a medical facility setting. However, increasingly, CCNs are being employed in home health, managed care organizations, nursing schools, outpatient surgery centers, clinics, and flight units.

How Much do CCNs Make?

The critical care nurse salary may differ by location, practice setting, and also the size of the institution. Additional factors that influence salary are educational level, experience, and position.

The escalating nursing shortage is particularly severe within the specialized sections of nursing. Hospitals are providing the critical care nurse ever more appealing incentives such as generous sign-on bonuses, relocation bonuses, and reimbursement, and other attractive benefits.

Based on a current membership questionnaire done with the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, 50% of the total regular membership revealed the following annual salary ranges:

  • $24,999 or below ( 4%)
  • $25,000 to 39,999 (18%)
  • $40,000 to 54,999 (39%)
  • $55,000 to 74,999 (29%)
  • $75,000 + ( 8%)

According to a 2010 salary survey of 2,784 nurses by, the typical annual salary for full-time nurses is $43,980. The salaries of certified nurses were compared with nurses who aren’t certified and results revealed that some 23 percent of certified nurses earn over $50,000 yearly. Only 11 percent of nurses who aren’t certified in a specialty earn more than $50,000.

How Do You Become a Critical Care Nurse?

Some organizations prefer to employ certified nurses because they are likely to exhibit a greater degree of expertise within their specialty and frequently have more specialty practice experience. The certified critical care nurse (CCRNs) meet this preference by passing a thorough test and by meeting extensive continuing education and clinical experience requirements.

CCN Qualifications

To be a critical care nurse, you will first need to be a registered nurse with at least a diploma in nursing, Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), or a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing (BSN). Though certification is not required for practice in a specialty like critical care, many nurses decide to become certified.

The requirements vary from state to state and are dictated by each states Board of Nursing. Many nursing schools offer students exposure to critical care, but most of a critical-care nurses specialty education and orientation are provided by his or her employer.

Advanced practice nurses must earn an advanced degree, either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or doctorate. If you are interested in becoming a critical care nurse, check out the following resources.

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses
101 Columbia
Aliso Viejo, CA 92656-1491
E-Mail: [email protected]
Web site:

Society of Critical Care Medicine
8101 East Kaiser Boulevard, 3rd Floor
Anaheim, CA 92808-2259
Fax: (312) 601-4501
E-Mail: [email protected]
Web site:

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