Understanding how critical illness affects your body

During your stay in the intensive care unit (ICU) at either Fiona Stanley Hospital or Rockingham General Hospital (external site), your body may go through some or all of the following changes.

Breathing

During your ICU stay you may have had a tracheostomy, where a tube was inserted into your windpipe via a hole in your throat to connect you to a ventilator and help you breath.

If so, you will have a scar on your neck where the tube was inserted but over time it will fade and become less obvious.

Keep doing the breathing exercises the physiotherapist gave you to strengthen the muscles and reduce your risk of chest infection.

Bruising

You may have bruises and scars if you were on a drip or had other tubes in your hands, arms, wrists, neck, groin or sides of your chest.

You may also have bruises on your stomach from injections given to stop your blood from getting clots.

Sensory changes

Your hearing, sight, taste, touch and sense of smell may be affected by your stay in the ICU, but these effects don’t usually last for very long.

Some drugs can affect your hearing, while others can leave a metallic taste in your mouth. If you were fed through a tube into your stomach, or by a drip into your veins, food may taste stronger or just different. Your sense of smell may also be affected because it is closely linked to your sense of taste.

You may have sore, dry eyes because you were sedated for a long time, or your eyes may be puffy and swollen because of the fluids you were given to keep you hydrated.

Things that touch your skin may feel odd and you may experience tingling in parts of your body. This can be caused by some of the drugs you were given or by your body’s reaction to your illness. These are usually temporary and should disappear over time.

Skin and hair

After your illness your skin may be dry or itchy, so moisturise it regularly.

You may notice changes to your hair and some of it may fall out. This is not unusual and can even happen months after you leave hospital. It usually grows back, but it may be more curly, straight or thin, or a different colour from how it was before.

Smoking

If you smoked before your illness, now is an ideal time to give up.

If you were critically ill and required a ventilator, smoking can damage and weaken your lungs even further.

If you stopped smoking while you were in hospital, don’t start again once you return home.

For support and advice visit Quitline WA (external site) or phone 13 78 48.

Toileting

When you were in the ICU, you may have had a tube known as a urinary catheter inserted in your bladder . This drained urine (wee) from your bladder and allowed staff to check your fluid levels. When the tube is taken out you may find it difficult to control your bladder as your muscles may be weaker. Bladder control usually returns to normal, but you can ask your medical team for exercises that may help in the meantime.

If you have problems urinating, you may have an infection, so see your doctor or a nurse as soon as possible. Symptoms include:

  • being unable to pass urine for several hours
  • a burning pain while urinating
  • blood in your urine.

Sometimes medication can change the amount and colour of your urine and how often you go to the toilet. It may also affect your bowel movements. If you’re worried about any of these things, talk to your doctor.

Voice changes

If you’ve had help with your breathing, your voice may have changed.

At first your throat may be sore, so don’t strain your voice. Try to relax as much as you can when you speak, and drink plenty of water.

You may have marks at the corners of your mouth caused by the tape used to keep your breathing tube in place. You may also have a dry mouth caused by a lack of saliva.

Weakness and weight loss

Don’t be surprised if you feel very tired and weak at first. Your muscles will have lost strength while you were ill and not active. The longer your illness the more your muscles will have weakened. Muscle loss also happens faster for patients who have been on a breathing machine. You may have lost a lot of weight because of this muscle loss.

As you get better and exercise you will put on weight and get stronger, but it will take time. Physical recovery is measured in months rather than weeks. It may take up to 18 months for you to feel fully better, so set yourself realistic goals. Keeping a diary that you can read when you don’t feel so well can help you realise the progress you are making.

Even if you don’t make a full recovery, you can still achieve a lot and live a full life. There are people who have been critically ill for months, and a year later, you’d never know what they’d been through. Try to stay positive, even if it means making some changes to the way you live.


Return to information about your ICU patient journey

Button reads ICU patient journey

Contact our ICUs

Contact the ICU at Fiona Stanley Hospital or Rockingham General Hospital (external site).