ABCs of Nursing | Assessment and Prioritization for Patient Care

The ABCs of nursing is a mnemonic that helps nurses remember the most essential steps to perform when prioritizing patient care.

The ABCs stand for airway, breathing, and circulation.

This acronym allows nurses to focus on the top priorities needed to ensure a patient’s well-being.

During patient care, nurses must make sure the patient’s airway is unobstructed and clear (aka having a patent airway).

They must also ensure the patient is breathing adequately (receiving sufficient oxygen throughout the lungs and body and expending co2).

Finally, nurses must make sure the patient has good blood flow and circulation.

Each factor is essential for a patient’s survival and well-being.

Consequently, issues related to any of these physiological processes can lead to significant and permanent harm and even lead to death.

As a result, it’s essential medical professionals understand and follow the ABCs of nursing due to their major role during patient care. 

Understand The Differences

Understanding the differences between airway, breathing, and circulation priorities allow nurses to provide the proper intervention care plan based on the patient’s medical condition.

In other words, there are separate and distinct interventions for airway problems than for circulation or breathing problems.

The following section explores the airway, breathing, and circulatory systems to help you identify potential assessments and treatment plans.


Airway issues focus on physical obstructions/occlusions that prevent the patient from breathing or receiving adequate oxygen.

These obstructions cause narrowing, blockages, and/or swelling to the patient’s breathing passages.

To illustrate, patients dealing with airway obstructions could be the result of blockages from food (peanuts), foreign objects, allergic reactions, or small toys.

Potential Causes

  • Food blockages
  • Throat swelling
  • Foreign objects
  • Chocking hazards/small toys

What to look for: When assessing a patient’s airway it’s important to observe the patient’s communication to ensure their vocation and speech are good.

Also look for signs of edema in or around the face/head, blood, vomit, and foreign objects logged in the airway.

Finally, listen to the patient intently for abnormal or loud breathing sounds.

Consequently, loud breathing sounds could indicate airway problems, which can get worse if untreated.


Breathing issues focus on ventilation/respiratory issues. These issues evolve around oxygen efficiency.

Basically, how well patients obtain sufficient oxygenation into their lungs and bloodstream.

It also focuses on how well patients expend harmful oxygen/co2 from their body/bloodstream. 

Importantly, breathing issues occur even when the airway is clear of physical obstructions/occlusions.

For instance, when a patient is dealing with respiratory issues, lung disease, infections, asthma, allergies, inflammation, etc.

Potential Causes

  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • COPD
  • Inflammation
  • Infections
  • Lung disease

What to look for: When assessing patients breathing it’s essential to look for signs of breathing difficulty.

Basically, you want to look for visual signs and listen for sounds that indicate potential breathing/respiratory distress.

This includes color changes of the face/skin, grunting, nose flaring, wheezing, and supplemental body positioning due to oxygen issues.

Finally, check the patient’s pulse oximetry to indicate abnormalities that cause/lead to respiratory issues.

Abnormal blood oxygen levels may indicate problematic oxygen saturation of the blood.

Consequently, shortness of breath, confusion, and restlessness are potential signs of hypoxemia (low blood oxygen).

Circulation/Circulatory Issues

Circulatory issues involve patients dealing with insufficient or poor blood circulation.

Circulatory problems result from various complications including physical occlusions, blood clots, diabetes, obesity, anemia, hemoglobin issues, etc.

Basically, poor blood circulation leads to reduced blood flow.

This can cause individuals to experience physical pain, muscle cramps, numbness, and tingling/stinking pains.

However, patients experience strokes, heart attacks, or other severe complications in extreme cases.

Potential Causes

  • Anemia
  • Deep vein thrombosis/DVT
  • Hemoglobin issues
  • Heart problems/Arterial disease
  • Obesity
  • Pulmonary Embolism/blood clot

What to look for: When assessing a patient’s circulation you must monitor their cognitive performance and look for signs of cognitive decline.

Also, observe their face and skin for discoloration or possible causes of poor circulation.

Finally, monitor the patient’s blood pressure, cardiac rhythm, heart rate, and peripheral pulses.

Abnormal readings could indicate issues related to poor blood circulation.

Assessment and Treatment

Nurses must simultaneously assess and treat patients dealing with airway, breathing, and/or circulatory issues.

In other words, treatment is required alongside a patient’s assessment, not after the assessment is completed.

This is because patients suffering from conditions related to the ABCs need immediate attention and intervention. 

Consequently, the faster a patient receives treatment the better nurses can prevent/reduce further medical issues.

Assessment and treatment go hand and hand with providing excellent patient care.

Review the steps and priorities for managing the different airway, breathing, and circulatory issues.

This ensures you’ll properly implement the necessary care plans to deliver proper medical care to patients in need.

Finally, ensure that you prioritize each patient based on their medical condition when dealing with multiple patients.

This allows you to give immediate care to the highest risk/priority patients.

Why is the ABCs of Nursing Important?

The ABCs of nursing prioritizes the essential physiological process necessary for sustaining life and well-being.

Therefore, these components of nursing care and prioritization are essential for patient care and well-being.

In fact, it’s so important these prioritization practices commonly appear on the NCLEX-RN exam.

The better you become at understanding the steps and priorities related to treating airway, breathing, and circulatory problems the more effective you will be when treating patients suffering from these medical conditions.

Whether you’re a nursing student studying for the NCLEX exam or a registered nurse providing care to patients take the time to study the ABCs of nursing so you can perform your duties to the best of your abilities.

As a result, you’ll save lives and reduce the risks of patients suffering from these medical-related issues.

You’ll also reduce the chances of patients needing additional medical care by resolving these problems early on.