If you were looked after in intensive care

Find out what might happen after you’ve been in intensive care with COVID-19.

Where will I go after I’ve left intensive care?
Coming home from hospital
Your rehabilitation plan
When will I get back to normal after having COVID-19?
Medical appointments after being in intensive care
Your mental health and wellbeing

Intensive care units (ICUs) are specialist hospital wards for patients who are very unwell, and need intensive treatment and very close monitoring.

Intensive care may also be known as intensive therapy units (ITUs) or critical care units (CCUs).

People who become very ill with COVID-19 may need to be looked after in an ICU. The most common reason for this is because the virus damages their lungs and they need support to breathe. This can mean they need to be on a ventilator. COVID-19 doesn’t just affect your lungs. This means that some people in intensive care will need machines and powerful medications to support their kidneys and heart, as well as their other organs.

Where will I go after I’ve left intensive care?

As you start to get better, you won’t need such intensive treatment and monitoring as when you were in intensive care. However, you will need to stay in hospital a while longer before you’re well enough to go home.

Moving from intensive care to another ward is often called ‘stepping down.’ You may be transferred to high dependency unit (HDU) first, where you’ll be looked after until you’re ready to be transferred to a general ward.

Moving to a general ward is a big step, as it means your condition is improving. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re still unwell and will need time to get better.

When you move out of intensive care and onto a ward, you should have a written plan that includes:

  • a summary of the care and treatment you received in intensive care
  • a plan for your treatment as you recover, and how you’ll be monitored
  • details of physical and mental health needs that you’ll need support with
  • a plan for what to do if things get worse again.

The ward staff will talk to intensive care staff if they have any questions or concerns about your condition and treatment.

Coming home from hospital

Coming home from hospital is a big milestone after being in intensive care with COVID-19. However, it’s important to remember that you’ve been very unwell and still have a lot of recovering to do.

You may still have post-COVID health issues, such as:

These issues can be upsetting and frustrating, but there are people who can help you. You should have a plan in place to help you recover at home, with support from healthcare professionals. This is called a rehabilitation plan.

Your rehabilitation plan

Before you leave hospital, your healthcare team will do an assessment of your needs. After this, they may put together a rehabilitation plan.

If you’ve been left with breathing problems after COVID-19, you might need pulmonary rehabilitation. Physiotherapists, nurses and occupational therapists will support you with exercises to improve your lung function and information to help you recover.

You might also be offered cognitive rehabilitation or psychiatric rehabilitation to help with any mental or emotional problems you’ve developed as a result of being seriously ill in intensive care.

If you have specific physical symptoms after intensive care, you might be referred to a healthcare professional who specialises in these symptoms.

For example, you may see a physiotherapist if your muscles are very weak and you need help to start walking again. You might need to see a dietician, who can help you with issues that affect your eating, such as problems swallowing. Your rehabilitation plan might involve seeing healthcare professionals at home or in a clinic or hospital, or having an online programme to follow in your own time.

Your COVID Recovery

The NHS has also launched a programme called Your COVID Recovery. This is a  service designed to support your physical and emotional recovery if you have ongoing COVID-19 symptoms.

If you’re referred to Your COVID Recovery, you’ll be able to ask healthcare professionals, such as nurses and physiotherapists, about any issues you’re having. They may also refer you to other services or professionals who can help with your recovery. There are exercises to help improve your lung function, and you can talk online to other people who have had COVID-19.

We also have stories from people who have had COVID-19 that you may find helpful.

If your COVID-19 symptoms continue after leaving hospital, ask your GP or hospital team if Your COVID Recovery is available in your area. If it is, they may be able to refer you to a centre where your needs can be assessed. It’s important to follow your rehabilitation plan, as this gives you the best chance of recovering from being in intensive care with COVID-19.

What to do if you don’t have a rehabilitation plan

Not everyone will be given a rehabilitation plan after being in intensive care, but you should be offered an appointment two to three months after leaving hospital, to check how you’re doing and assess whether you need any extra care. If you haven’t got a rehabilitation plan and think you need one, speak to your GP.

Tell them you’ve been in intensive care, and give them the details of the unit you were in. They may be able to ask the ICU to give you more support or refer you to other services themselves, such as physiotherapy.

When will I get back to normal after having COVID-19?

The weeks and months after leaving intensive care can be difficult. It’s normal to feel depressed or anxious if you’re not back to your usual self. You may also be frustrated if you can’t do the things you’d usually do, like going to work, exercising or looking after your children.

It’s important to be realistic about your recovery time. Be kind to yourself and give yourself small goals, rather than aiming to get back to normal quickly. For example, you might set yourself the target of making a cup or tea or coffee, or walking a few steps further each day.

Ask friends or family to help out if you’re not strong enough to do your usual tasks at home. Take a nap if you need to. And talk to your employer about how you’ll get back to work: you might be able to do just one or two hours a day at first, and build back up to your usual working hours.

Doing too much too soon could set your recovery back, so it’s important to listen to your body. It’ll tell you if it’s tired or in pain, so rest when you need to and be prepared to work your way back to fitness gradually. The charity ICU Steps has lots of information to support you as you get back to normal life after being in intensive care with COVID-19.

Medical appointments after being in intensive care

Guidance says that patients who have been in intensive care should have a review with a healthcare professional two to three months after being discharged.

This appointment would usually take place face to face, either in hospital or at a community health centre. However, because of the pandemic, you may have a phone or video appointment instead.

This is your chance to talk about how you’re recovering and any worries you have. If your recovery is slower than expected, or you have concerns about your physical or emotional health, your healthcare professional might refer you to specialist services, like physiotherapy or a mental health team. Remember, you don’t have to wait for this appointment to discuss any concerns you have about your recovery. Your GP is there to help, and if they can’t deal with your problem themselves, they can contact your ICU for advice or refer you to other healthcare professionals.

Your mental health and wellbeing

Being seriously ill in intensive care can be very distressing, and many people find that this experience has an impact on their mental health and emotional wellbeing.

You might feel afraid, anxious, low and depressed. On top of this, you might feel frustrated that it’s taking time to recover physically, which could make you irritable and angry. You might find you have flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks about your time in intensive care.

There are things you can do to help yourself, such as:

  • distracting yourself when you’re feeling anxious, perhaps by taking a gentle walk or calling a friend
  • gradually starting to do things you enjoyed before you were ill, like gardening or DIY
  • trying mindfulness meditation: there are lots of apps and online programmes to try, including mindful breathing exercises and the NHS Be Mindful online course
  • sticking to a good sleep routine, going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time each day
  • not drinking too much alcohol, as this can affect your mood
  • setting yourself a realistic plan for the day, with small goals that will give you a sense of accomplishment.

NHS Every Mind Matters also has lots of advice on looking after your mental health.

If you’re still feeling very low or anxious after a couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to see your GP. You can also refer yourself for free NHS talking therapies through the Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) service without needing to see your GP.

More information

Breathlessness and how to manage breathlessness — from the British Lung Foundation
Support for recovering from COVID-19 — from Lancashire Teaching Hospitals
What you should know about leaving a critical care unit — from The UK Sepsis Trust
Recovering from COVID-19 after ICU stay — from the University of Dundee
A guide to intensive care, including information in 18 languages — from ICUsteps

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Last medically reviewed: 24/09/20.
COVID-19 is a new health condition, and more information is coming out all the time.  We will update this page with new information as it becomes available.

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