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Hospital  >  Departments  >  Critical Care Medicine  >  Navigating the ICU  >  What are all those tubes and machines?  >  What are blood pressure medications, or vasopressors?

What are blood pressure medications, or vasopressors?

Vasopressors are a group of medications that are used to artificially maintain the patient’s blood pressure within a normal range. They are usually given intravenously, or through an IV needle.

There are two types of vasopressors:

  • Medications that increase the tone of the blood vessels (vasoconstriction);
  • Medications that increase the ability of the heart to contract (to pump the blood into the vessels of the body).

Why is a patient given vasopressor medications?

Patients who need vasopressors are usually suffering from a severe medical condition – like a life-threatening infection or a major heart problem – that prevents their blood vessels or their heart from functioning normally.

  • Vasopressors are a form of life support. That means they provide support while the body is recovering from a severe medical condition;
  • They do not "fix" the underlying problem such as an infection or the failing heart;
  • When a patient improves and is able to maintain a stable blood pressure, vasopressors are gradually decreased before being stopped completely.

Are there risks linked to the use of vasopressors?

Like any other medications, vasopressors can be associated with side effects and complications.

  • By "squeezing" the blood vessels to maintain the blood pressure for important organs – such as the heart and the brain –, vasopressors may prevent the blood from reaching certain part of the bodies, like the fingers or the bowel;
  • Hands may feel cold or even change color when vasopressors are being used;
  • A prolonged use of high doses of vasopressors can harm some parts of the body;
  • Vasopressors can also cause an abnormal heart beat (cardiac arrhythmias).

The ICU team is monitoring every patient for these complications, which are sometimes not reversible.

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Location and contact

Critical Care Medicine

Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre
2075 Bayview Avenue, 
D-wing, 1st floor
room D1 08
Toronto, ON M4N 3M5

Phone: 416-480-4522
Fax: 416-480-4999

For information about patients admitted to Sunnybrook's Intensive Care Units, please contact the unit through the hospital switchboard at 416-480-6100