As a student, recent graduate, or current nurse looking for a change in environment, you’re in a perfect position to explore new and varied nursing opportunities through the world of travel healthcare. But before you apply to a travel healthcare company or look for a travel nurse recruiter, it can be helpful to know which areas of nursing you’re interested in. This way, your recruiter can tailor your assignments to your preferences to help you have the best experience possible.

There are several types of nurses with different areas of expertise. In this article, we’ll explore one important speciality in particular: Pediatric Intensive Care.

Understanding the PICU and PICU Nursing

PICU stands for Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Nurses who work in the PICU provide care for severely ill or injured children and adolescents who need constant monitoring and interventions.

Because many of the acronyms used to describe intensive care units, or ICU, within the hospital sound similar (for instance, PICU, MICU, PCU, and NICU), it can be easy to mix them up and confuse what each unit offers. To better understand how the PICU in particular differs from other intensive care units, let’s explore each unit’s defining characteristics.1

  • MICU – Also known as Medical Intensive Care Units, MICUs provide treatment for adults who have medical conditions that don’t require surgery. Unlike the MICU, PICUs care specifically for children and adolescents. The PICU normally doesn’t provide care to any patients over the age of 18.
  • PCU – The PCU, or Progressive Care Unit, branches the divide between intensive care and general care. Patients in the PCU still require more comprehensive care and monitoring, but are in a more stable condition than those in intensive care. Unlike the PICU, the PCU does not have age restrictions. If you’re a travel nurse seeking opportunities, consider exploring the various assignments available for PCU travel nurses.
  • NICU – It can be easy to confuse the PICU with the NICU, or the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, as both units care for younger people. However, the NICU specializes solely in the care and treatment of newborn babies. Infants who are cared for in the NICU are usually either born prematurely, have difficult births, or have health conditions that need attention immediately after birth. The NICU does not treat older children or healthy babies.

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What Kind of Patients Are Cared For in the PICU?

While PICU nurses care for children and adolescents in critical condition, the circumstances that can lead a child to need intensive care can vary significantly. This means PICU nurses need to understand what conditions they may have to face on a daily basis.

Some conditions that can cause severe illness or injury, or necessitate significant recovery in the PICU include:2

  • Invasive surgery
  • Congenital anomalies
  • Immunological disorders
  • Severe infection
  • Poisoning
  • Drug overdose
  • Physical trauma

In all of these situations, the PICU nurse will assist with recovery while minimizing pain and disability.

What Are the Working Conditions of a PICU Nurse?

PICU nurses are responsible for the minute-to-minute care of a small number of patients. On average, a PICU RN or Pediatric Intensive Care nurse would provide care to 1 to 3 children at a time. This high nurse-to-patient ratio is key to the functioning of the PICU as it allows nurses to be fully aware of the needs of their pediatric patients and immersed in their care. For young patients, who can be particularly volatile and fragile, this one-on-one care is essential to effective treatment.

Due to the PICU’s fast-paced environment, attention to detail is also a necessity for PICU nurses. A patient’s status can change in as little as 30 seconds. As a PICU nurse, it’s your responsibility to notice even slight changes in your patient’s condition and adapt quickly to ever-evolving situations. For PICU nurses, precision is of utmost importance.

What Are the Responsibilities of a PICU Nurse?

At any given time, a PICU nurse is responsible for many different aspects of their patient’s treatment. As a PICU nurse, you’re heavily involved in the assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation stages of treatment for your pediatric patients.3

A PICU nurse’s daily responsibilities can include:

  • Monitoring vitals and specialized readings — PICU nurses need to monitor a vast amount of information about their patients to track or anticipate any potential problems. This can include monitoring vital signs (such as blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and temperature), cardiac readings, respiratory readings, urine and fluid output, fluid intake, medication intake, and lab results.
  • Administering medication, treatment, or therapy — Another part of a PICU nurse’s job is to conduct the treatments that are necessary to improve the health and longevity of the patient. This can include administering prescribed medications, changing dressings, inserting or removing catheters and IV lines, conducting infusion therapy, and even performing emergency treatments during life-saving situations.
  • Recording care information — One of the most important parts of a PICU nurse’s job is to keep records of all care information in the proper format and on the proper forms. This includes recording how and when treatment was provided, adverse reactions the young patient may have experienced, and any updates to the treatment plan. Properly kept records allow nurses and other medical professionals to learn exactly what care was provided to the patient and what should come next.
  • Collaborating with other physicians and health care providers — Although PICU nurses are involved in a specific child’s care and treatment, they’re not the only person providing input. As a PICU nurse, you would work as a PICU team with other healthcare professionals, including the attending physician, fellows, nurse practitioner, pharmacists, nutritionists, social workers, and other specialists. This collaboration across specialties provides a variety of perspectives and helps ensure the best course of action is taken for each patient.
  • Communicating with the family and loved ones of the patient — As a PICU nurse, you may be the first and only point of contact between your patient and their loved ones. Being able to clearly and calmly communicate with family members, who can often be emotional about the condition of the patient, is integral to providing information and reassurance.

How Can I Become a PICU Nurse?

If you’re interested in becoming a PICU nurse, there are a few factors to take into consideration. One of the most significant factors is the education and experience required. In addition, there are questions you can ask yourself to see whether you’d be a good fit for the PICU. Finally, you can familiarize yourself with the job outlook of a PICU nurse to see where a future in PICU nursing can take you.

Necessary Qualifications

In order to become a PICU nurse, you must be a graduate of an accredited nursing program. This can include an ADN or a BSN.

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) — An ADN is a two-year program that prepares students for the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) and provides the necessary skills to begin working as a registered nurse.
  • Bachelors of Science in Nursing (BSN) — This four-year program provides more comprehensive skill building and occupational experience. BSN programs also prepare students for the NCLEX, and may improve PICU nursing job prospects compared to those with an ADN.

Many hospitals also require a minimum of one year of medical or surgical experience as an RN prior to working in the PICU. Finally, you must have a current nursing license, be in good standing with the State licensing board, and have all Federal and State credentials on file.

Questions to Ask Yourself

The PICU is an intense place to work, even for an experienced registered nurse. The PICU patients are a young and vulnerable group, which can make the work more difficult and emotional. To that end, it can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions when considering a career as a PICU nurse.

  • How will I handle the emotional toll of working with chronically ill or severely injured children?
  • Am I able to set my emotions aside when making difficult decisions about care and treatment?
  • If I am a parent, will the fact that I have children affect the way I make healthcare decisions?
  • When I have to administer care that may be painful or frightening to the child, how will I prevent myself from feeling guilty?
  • Am I able to handle highly emotional and stressful situations, particularly when having conversations with loved ones about the health of their child?
  • How will I handle grief, suffering, and death in and outside of the workplace?
  • What kind of support systems do I have in place for coping with the stresses of my PICU nursing job?

Job Outlook and Salary

In the United States, the average annual PICU nurse salary is about $72,500 as of June 2021.4 However, your exact salary as a PICU nurse can vary widely depending on several factors. One of the most significant factors is your job location, as the average salary differs from state-to-state, and can be further impacted by the city and employer.

Individual factors can contribute to salary ranges as well. These include education level, certifications, specialties, and the length of time spent as an RN.

On the whole, PICU nurses will always be in demand in the medical field. Due to the necessity of a high nurse-to-patient ratio for maintaining quality of care in the PICU, hospitals around the country are always looking to expand their PICU nursing staff.

Take Your Passion for PICU Nursing On the Road with Host Healthcare

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a traveling pediatric nurse, or if you’re interested in another nursing speciality, apply to be a travel nurse with Host Healthcare. Our talented recruiters can match you with assignments that fit your lifestyle, professional ambitions, and dream destinations.

As a traveler with Host Healthcare, you’ll have the opportunity to care for children and adolescents in PICU units across the country while exploring new cities and making long-lasting connections. Apply now, and start your journey today!


  1. Washington State Department of Health. Types of Hospital Units.
  2. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).
  3. General Healthcare Resources. GHR Job Description Position: PICU
  4. Pediatric ICU Nurse Salary in the United States.