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Career Spotlight: Addiction Nurse

Addiction to drugs and alcohol is a major societal problem. About 20 million people in the U.S. currently have substance abuse disorders, and 1 in 7 Americans will abuse alcohol or drugs in their lifetime.1 Many policymakers and legislators have proposed treating this phenomenon as a health issue rather than a criminal one, indicating a greater role for the health care industry in treatment and prevention. An addiction nurse, also called substance abuse nurse, plays a major part in efforts to help people overcome their dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Responsibilities and Desired Skills

In addition to general nursing skills and knowledge, addiction nurses have advanced knowledge of specific physical and mental health issues related to substance abuse. Physical ailments during drug rehab can include nausea, heart palpitations, and tremors. Nurses who specialize in addiction have to be aware of these effects and offer the appropriate treatments. The same is true for the mental and emotional effects of rehab, which can include anxiety and depression. Addiction nurses are trained to recognize these symptoms and can arrange for patients to speak to a counselor or psychiatrist if serious interventions are needed.

An understanding of behavioral psychology is vital to help the patient through the rehab process and prepare them for a future free of drugs and alcohol. Addiction nurses can help patients pinpoint events or situations that “trigger” episodes of substance abuse, and then identify strategies for how to deal and cope with those temptations. They also work with patients to create healthier responses to stress, such as exercise or calling a sponsor for support.

Addiction nurses often educate patients and their families about the dangers involved with substance abuse to not only the user, but also their loved ones and even society. Alcohol and drug abuse is estimated to cost the country more than $400 billion annually as a result of crime, lost productivity at work and medical treatment.2  Nurses will also inform family members about ways they can support a patient’s sobriety.

Consequently an addictions nurse must have a wide range of skills including: 

  • Exemplary motivational, communication, and listening skills
  • Holistic health knowledge, since addiction affects a range of physical and mental systems
  • Collaboration and teamwork skills to work with other caregivers, such as therapists and physicians
  • Familiarity with widely used rehab frameworks such as 12 step programs

Career Outlook and Certifications

Addiction nurses can work on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. They may work at rehabilitation clinics, drug treatment programs, correctional centers, methadone clinics, and hospitals. The job outlook for addiction counseling is expected to grow 31% by 2022, while the employment rate for all registered nurses is estimated to grow 19% in the same period providing ample career opportunities.3

To work with patients dealing with substance abuse, nurses must become either a Certified Addictions Registered Nurse (CARN) or Certified Addictions Registered Nurse - Advanced Practice (CARN-AP). Offered through the Addictions Nursing Certification Board (ANCB), these credentials certify that a nurse has the ability to effectively care for patients suffering from all aspects of addictions. 

  • CARN certification requires a minimum of one year of nursing experience related to addictions as an RN as well as 30 hours of continuing education related to addictions nursing within the previous three years.
  • CARN-AP certification requires a master’s degree or higher in nursing and documentation of 500 hours of advanced clinical practice working with individuals and families dealing with addictions.

Learn More

Helping people face and fight their addictions as a nurse can be a difficult, but ultimately rewarding experience. To learn how the online Master of Science in Nursing at the University of Saint Mary can build a foundation for a career in addiction nursing or other specialty fields, request more information or call us at 877-307-4915 to speak to an admissions advisor.

1 “Facing Addiction in America,”
2 National Institute on Drug Abuse,
3 Nurse Journal,