What Do Substance Abuse Nurses Do?

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Substance abuse continues to be a growing problem in the United States, with one out of 10 Americans having to deal with it at one point in their lives. Consequently, there is a large demand for nurses who specialize in substance abuse treatment. This field can be particularly demanding since nurses have to deal with patients who are unable to overcome their addictions, but it can also be rewarding to see a patient recover and lead a successful life.


The primary role of the substance abuse nurse is to provide emotional support and administer any required medications to patients attempting to overcome substance abuse. This means that the nurse must not only possess the necessary technical skills, but also the empathy to be able to deal with people who have reached an emotional low point. Understanding and patience are key personality traits that can determine the success of a substance abuse professional.

Initial Assessment

Substance abuse nurses are often the first ones to meet patients as they enter a hospital or treatment facility, thus giving them the opportunity to assess the overall condition. In extreme situations, such as when patients are experiencing delirium tremors or are unable to walk under their own power, the nurse must make a quick decision as to whether the patient's symptoms may be life-threatening and require immediate intensive treatment.


Many addicts require medication during the initial phases of treatment to help them cope with withdrawal symptoms. In many cases, they will request drugs after the withdrawal phase is completed as a way to compensate for the absence of any drugs. A key role of the substance abuse nurse is to determine whether more medication is actually needed or if the patient is merely attempting to satisfy a continued craving for drugs.

Facing Relapse

Since many patients are not successful in defeating their addiction during the first round of treatment and often suffer a relapse, substance abuse nurses must be able to cope with the fact that their efforts to help a patient may not have been successful. It is helpful for the nurse to be able to sustain the mindset that substance abuse is a disease, and that patients will often return to their previous ways despite their best efforts. Otherwise, a substance abuse nurse can easily experience frustration and become dissatisfied with her career.


Advanced education is necessary to become a substance abuse nurse. A degree in nursing is essential, and medical technician training is also useful since nurses will often need to administer medication. Psychological training is also useful since nurses will need to be able to communicate with and gain the support of a patient's family members in order to aid in the recovery process.