How to Become a Substance Abuse Nurse

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Written by Ann Real, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A substance abuse nurse stands in a hospital hallway.

Looking to start a rewarding career dedicated to helping people reclaim their lives by stopping drugs and alcohol abuse? As a substance abuse nurse, you’ll provide support to individuals battling addiction — one of society’s most pressing challenges, affecting millions of people worldwide. According to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, here are some startling insights into the harsh realities of substance abuse:

  • 70.3 million used illicit drugs in the past year.
  • 48.7 million had a substance use disorder.
  • 29.5 million had an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
  • 27.2 million had a drug use disorder (DUD).

As an addiction recovery nurse, you’ll help people going through withdrawals and address their physical, mental, or emotional needs that arise on their recovery journey. This comprehensive guide will walk you through everything you need to know to become a skilled and compassionate addiction nurse.

Substance Abuse Nurse: Career Snapshot

  • Mission: Help people overcome addiction.
  • Responsibilities: Facilitate a safe withdrawal process, monitor withdrawal symptoms, and provide education on effective coping mechanisms.
  • Workplaces: Rehabilitation centers, hospitals, clinics, and addiction treatment facilities.
  • Path: Nursing degree followed by optional certification in substance abuse nursing.
  • Perks: Witnessing individuals achieve sobriety and transform their lives.
  • Cons: Facing harsh realities of addiction, including high mortality rate.

What Is a Substance Abuse Nurse?

Substance abuse nursing is a broad field that involves two distinct specialties: detox nursing and addiction recovery nursing. As a detox nurse, you’ll be primarily dealing with patients in acute physical withdrawal from drugs and alcohol. As an addiction recovery nurse, you may also work with patients in later stages of the recovery process.

The typical patients in this practice include:

  • People overcoming addiction to illicit drugs, like cocaine, methamphetamine, and opioids.
  • People struggling with alcohol addiction.
  • People addicted to prescription medications.
  • Adolescents experimenting with illicit substances.
  • People struggling with behavioral addictions such as gambling or gaming.

What Do Substance Abuse Nurses Do?

In addition to typical nursing tasks like head-to-toe assessments and medication administration, nursing interventions for substance abuse typically include:

  • Watching for withdrawal signs and intervening appropriately during patient detoxification.
  • Administering medication tapers to manage withdrawal and prevent complications.
  • Screening for co-occurring conditions, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation.
  • Conducting tests to assess liver function and other systems affected by drug use.
  • Performing screenings for HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases in patients struggling with IV drug use.
  • Educating patients and families on disease progression and recovery options, such as 12-step fellowships and community programs.
  • Assisting patients in finding safe and affordable housing, such as halfway houses.
  • Leading support groups to foster peer support and accountability.
  • Conducting the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol (CIWA), the Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scale (COWS) screening, and other relevant documentation, including a nursing care plan for substance abuse.

Where Do Substance Abuse Nurses Work?

In this field, you can pursue bedside and non-bedside roles. Some places where you might find employment are:

Steps to Become a Substance Abuse Nurse

Getting into this meaningful nursing specialty may be simpler than you think. Let’s explore the steps to begin your journey as an addiction recovery professional:

1. Earn a Nursing Degree

The fastest way to become a registered nurse (RN) is to earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN). Alternatively, you can choose to pursue a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) degree, which is preferred by employers. Many addiction recovery facilities also hire licensed practical nurses (LPNs).

2. Obtain Licensure

To become an RN, you need to pass the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses) and submit all required documentation to your state’s board of nursing.

3. Gain Experience

Gain nursing experience in relevant specialties, such as medical-surgical, critical care, or psychiatric nursing. This background forms a solid base for moving into the substance abuse specialty.

4. Attain Substance Abuse Nurse Certification

As an optional step, you can choose to boost your credibility by getting certified. Here are the certifications available to addiction recovery nurses:

  • Certified Addiction Recovery Nurse (CARN)
  • Certified Advanced Practice Addiction Recovery Nurse (CARN-AP)

5. Advance Further With Continuing Education

If you want to become a top-notch candidate on the job market, you can advance your practice by attending conferences, joining professional organizations, and taking continuing education courses.

6. Pursue Advanced Education

Do you have high ambitions? Pursue advanced education, like a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree, or become a nurse practitioner. Though not essential for starting out in this field, taking this step can propel your career forward.

How Much Do Substance Abuse Nurses Make?

The typical substance abuse nurse salary in the U.S. is about $78,215, and it typically ranges from $71,526 and $88,306. Your earnings might differ based on factors like your educational background, certifications, work experience, and geographic location.

If you are open to relocation, consider sending your RN resume to one of these top-paying states:

Are You Ready to Become a Substance Abuse Nurse?

Are you on the lookout for your next nursing job? Regardless of the path you choose, explore IntelyCare today to find specialized nursing opportunities that meet your needs.