Addiction Information for Nurses

Understanding Drug Abuse and Alcoholism Among Registered Nurses

Substance abuse among nurses is very dangerous. Not only do their put their own lives at risk, but they do the same for the patients they care for. For many nurses, their substance abuse problems begin because they’re taking medications. They spend a lot of time on their feet, which can lead to physical pain. Their jobs may also be very stressful, which can lead to anxiety.

Regardless, many instances of substance abuse go undetected. Few nurses are willing to step forward and admit that they need help. In fact, they often feel that because they know more about substances than most people, their use is OK.

Alcoholism is also quite prevalent within the nursing profession. Again, the fact that they’re professionals leads them to believe that they can control their drinking. They may see themselves as being immune to alcohol addiction, unlike their patients.

Both alcoholism and substance abuse remain a major problem to this day for the nursing profession. If you’re a nurse who is a substance abuser, you need to understand why, and how to get help.

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Addicted RNs and Nurses: An Overview

Addicted RNs and nurses treat patients in hospitals, doctors' offices and clinics every single day, and usually, no one is the wiser to their deception. It's no secret that their jobs are difficult. Nurses consistently have to deal with problems and issues that most people would have a hard time doing.

They're trained to be quick, efficient, and effectual multi-taskers that can handle almost any challenge that's thrown their way.

They often find themselves having to take extra shifts, cover for colleagues, and rearrange their entire day just to accommodate the needs of their jobs.

The nursing profession is one that should be honored and admired. Nurses generally spend much more time with their patients than doctors do, and they're often even the first ones to know if a particular patient is struggling and in need of a doctor's immediate attention. Most nurses will say that they love their jobs, and they find their work to be incredibly rewarding. If that's the case, the question is, why are so many RNs and nurses turning to alcohol and drug addictions?

There are a number of reasons, and the way that the system is set up certainly doesn't make it very easy for them to get the help they need when they do become addicted to substances. Aside from the fact that so many nurses live in denial of the fact that they even have addictions, for them to be too afraid to speak out about them means that they are likely to remain in them for years unless they're discovered first.

How about you? Are you an RN or a nurse with an addiction to drugs or alcohol? If you are, then this information might be exactly what you've been searching for. It's important for you to know that you're not alone, and it's vital for you to understand that others share in your reasons for continuing on in your addiction. Even so, addiction treatment help is available for you to quit using.

Nurses and Addiction: What are the Statistics?

One of the questions that may be on your mind is, how many addicted nurses are there in the United States? The numbers are actually quite shocking.

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Statistics tell us that:


There are approximately 3 million RNs that are currently employed in the United States. About 10% of those RNs are addicted to drugs.


That means that around 300,000 nurses may be struggling with addictions. Prescription medication abuse is much more likely for nurses than addictions to illicit drugs.


In one state, it was discovered that 3 out of 4 nurses who had received disciplinary action had done so because they were RNs with drug addictions. Within those same findings, it was discovered that 28% of nurse suspensions because of drug use had occurred within the last year.

Most patients never dream that their attending nurse might be struggling with an addiction, but as you can see, the problem is definitely there. What you may be wondering is, why are so many nurses turning to addictions? That's an excellent question, and the answer is that there are actually many reasons behind their choices to use substances.

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RNs and Substance Abuse: Why are They at Such a High Risk?

Nurses who are diagnosed with substance use disorders have often been using drugs or alcohol for a very long time. Many of them continue to use for years before either coming forward about their addictions, or being caught using while on the job.

Nurses and RNs are a high risk of addictions for a number of reasons, and some of these include:

  • Their jobs are very demanding, and require a high level of concentration
  • They often work long hours, and have difficulty sleeping and waking up
  • The stress of spending so much time away from their families may be causing them to turn to substances
  • Hospitals, doctors' offices and clinics make medications and the tools to administer them very accessible
  • Many nurses suffer with mental illnesses, which they decide to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol

Nurses work vigorous schedules. Many times, they'll work for up to ten days at a time, for 12 hours shifts, and that's only if they haven't agreed to take on any more shifts or hours. Nurses who have addictions will frequently agree to take on many more shifts than they're regularly scheduled to work, and this is because they want to be where the drugs are. Of course, their supervisors don't suspect anything, and they only believe that they have an excellent employee who is a team player, and who really wants to care for his or her patients.

Alcoholism and Nurses: Are RNs Likely to be Alcoholics?

Just as in other high stress professions, the field of nursing is not immune to the issue of alcoholism. Many nurses are influenced by genetics and family alcoholism, and they may have seen family members using alcohol as a way to cope with stress and any other issues they faced. In one study by NCBI, alcoholism in nurses was influenced by a need for acceptance and the inability to cope with stressful situations at work.

Nurses will frequently spend their entire shifts on their feet. They're running from patient to patient, taking care of doctors' orders, assisting with important medical procedures and surgeries, and entering information into their patients' electronic records. Quite often, they barely have enough time to go to bathroom, let alone sit down and take a break to eat lunch or dinner. That type of high-strung work atmosphere frequently leads to anxiety, and alcoholism often occurs as a result of that. Most nurses begin drinking as a way to release some of the tension they feel from a long day at work, or even just on the weekends as a way to unwind when they have a few days off. However, over time, it's common for these occasional binges to become more serious.

Infrequent nights out with friends to relax can quickly turn into secret drinking at home, while they're alone after a shift at work. Over time, these sessions become more frequent, and when they do, many nurses become alcoholics without ever meaning for it to happen.

Prescription Drug Addiction and Nurses: The Ease of Obtaining Drugs and Supplies

The idea that so many nurses struggle with addictions might seem to be a crazy one for most people. After all, they're very knowledgeable about the side effects of prescription medications (as well the side effects of heroin and other illegal drugs and alcohol). They know more than most people do about the dangers of these substances, but it turns out that this is actually the problem.

Nurses spend their days being surrounded by drugs like Oxycodone and Dilaudid, and the paraphernalia that are available to administer them. They will often reason with themselves that it's OK because they're using FDA-approved medications. In a way, their knowledge works against them because they know the appropriate dosages, and they also know when to back down to avoid overdosing, or making others suspicious of their addictive behaviors. There are some medical facilities that have strict rules in place about discarding medications that patients aren't using, but for the most part, hospitals and even doctors' offices and clinics are busy places. It's very easy to overlook a missing vial of a medication because there are just too many other things happening at the same time.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse and Nurses: The Ease of Covering it Up

For nurses who have addictions, they actually have a very easy time covering their tracks. This is why so many of them continue to abuse drugs and alcohol for such a long time.

For example, a nurse who works the night shift might drink alcohol before going to work because it keeps her going during her shift; at least that is what she tells herself. To cover up the smell, she might have a few breath mints on hand, and because she always seems so happy, her co-workers might never have any suspicion that something is off.

For those who use prescription drugs while they're working, there are so many easy ways for them to obtain them. On some nursing units, there are specific medication nurses whose job it is to handle the dispensing of any and all medications to patients during their shifts. They handle medications in pill form, and they also provide patients with morphine injections, IV medications and other drugs as needed. On other nursing units, nurses are responsible for giving medications to their own patients when they're ordered or as they become necessary. Either way, there are no barriers to nurses getting the prescription drugs they need when they need them.

In these situations, because of the way certain drugs are packaged, nurses can easily take a vial of unused medication home with them that should have been wasted. Or, they can put it in their pockets and use it themselves in the bathroom. Nurses can pocket unused pills for their own personal use, and they will even only give their patients partial doses of medications so that they can keep the rest for themselves.

Where the healthcare industry has largely gone wrong is that they inadvertently allow this type of behavior to continue. Rules for wasting medications are rarely followed, and usually nurses are too busy to watch one another get rid of drugs. Also, when an addiction is suspected and reported, more often than not, nursing supervisors aren't willing to look into the matter further, either because they're so busy or because the report against one of their nurses seems so out of place that they assume it must be a mistake.

It's truly not surprising that there are so many nurses with addictions in America's hospitals and clinics. It's a behavior that has been allowed to continue.

How to Tell When an RN has an Addiction Problem

Nurses with addictions are actually quite common in hospitals, medical clinics and doctors' offices all across the United States. However, many times their addictions are not discovered for a number of different reasons. That means that a great number of nurses will continue to come to work, placing patients' lives at risk while they're under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Quite often, this can go on for years without anyone suspecting that anything is wrong.

Perhaps you're a nurse with an addiction, or you suspect that you may have an addiction. It's possible that you may even work with a nurse that might have an addiction, but you're just not sure. You're not aware of the various signs you should be looking for in order to confirm that there might be a problem that needs to be addressed, and you need to know how to tell when an RN has an addiction problem. Knowing the signs and symptoms of addiction in nurses can certainly help you, but it's also helpful to know the behaviors you should be looking for as well.

Signs That You May be an Addicted Nurse: The Symptoms of Addiction

It's possible that your main concern is for a co-worker that you've been noticing some strange behaviors from. You may be wondering if he or she has an addiction. It's also possible that you're interested in knowing the symptoms of addiction for yourself because you're just not sure if your substance use has crossed over into addiction. There are many different signs you can look for.

Some of the physical signs of addiction for nurses include:

  • Shakiness or tremors in the hands
  • Complaining of fatigue
  • Exhibiting slurred speech
  • Frequent watery eyes
  • Constricted or dilated pupils
  • Problems with balance and coordination
  • Stomach problems, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Weight loss or gain

You also might notice some behavioral changes, such as:

  • Problems with concentration
  • Sudden outbursts of anger
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Laughing inappropriately
  • Wearing long sleeves in warm weather
  • Complaining of insomnia
  • Impaired judgment regarding their own performance

Other changes you might notice include:

  • Brief, unexplained absences during a shift
  • Making rounds at strange hours
  • Frequent medication errors
  • Becoming isolated from others on the nursing unit
  • Mood changes after breaks
  • Patients may frequently report a lack of pain relief
  • Many instances of wasted narcotics
  • Altered telephone or verbal medication orders

If you notice any of the above happening for you, chances are that you do have an addiction. If you're a nurse and you're concerned about a co-worker who might have an addiction, these are just some of the indicators that a substance abuse problem or addiction might be present. If you're still unsure, it might help to take an addiction quiz that will give you even more information.

Nursing and Addiction: How Widespread is the Problem in the United States?

While it stands to reason that there would be a high number of addicted nurses in the United States, most people just don't realize how common it really is. Approximately 10% of all nurses have addictions in the U.S. That means that out of every ten nurses, one of them has an addiction. Most people are surprised to find that the statistic is so high; especially because nurses work in the healthcare field, and they generally see addiction on a regular basis. They know what it can do to people, and they know the effects it has had in their patients' lives.

The amount of knowledge that nurses have in this area is exactly why they are so prone to addictions. Of all of the different types of substances that nurses could use, most of them tend to either drink alcohol or they will use prescription drugs that they obtain from their places of employment. Nurses basically have unrestricted access to prescription drugs, and so for them, it's very easy to get what they need when they want to get high, whether it's on the job or off the job.

Drug Abuse and RNs: Is it Enabled by Other Nurses?

Another issue for nurses is the fact that even though doctors and nurses appear to be on the same "team," whether that's in a doctor's office, a clinic or a hospital, there are some separations there. Both doctors and nurses tend to believe that they are the ones in charge of the facility, which creates a division between the two groups of people. If a doctor happens to suspect that a nurse has altered paperwork and stolen prescription drugs, the doctor will naturally report it to the nurse's supervisor. The problem is that nurses who use substances are generally hard-working professionals, and their supervisors are likely to stick up for them, and just brush the issue aside.

The busyness of hospital settings also contributes to addiction problems in nurses as well. There has been a lot done in an attempt to control medications in hospital settings, and even at medical clinics. However, the fact remains that many facilities are understaffed, and their patient populations are just simply too high for them to handle them comfortably. Even so, most facilities have narcotic waste rules, which indicate when a nurse is getting rid of medications, it must be witnessed by another nurse. Although it sounds like an excellent way to protect against the possibility of staff members stealing prescription drugs, most of the time the rule isn't followed appropriately.

Nurses often have to be in many different places at once, and very rarely does one have an extra moment to watch a colleague get rid of a medication in a waste container.

What usually happens is that a nurse will report that he or she wasted a medication, and someone else will sign off it either on paper or in the computer afterwards, without ever having actually witnessed anything. This happens all the time, and it allows so many nurses to get away with obtaining prescription drugs without too much worry or concern.

Clearly, the way the system is set up has made it so easy for nurses to continue in their addictions, and many of them do for years, until they either realize that they need to get help, they get caught, or they suffer a serious medical consequence from drug use. Addictions among these professionals are being enabled, and that's something that clearly has to stop.

Most patients have no idea that so many nurses are battling addictions, and there is such a great deal of deception that occurs behind the scenes. Addicted nurses have learned how to work the system in their favor, and they do it by first gaining their patients' trust. For example, a patient who has spent the last half hour talking with a nurse in the emergency room, sharing stories, laughing at his or her jokes, and appreciating such thoughtful and attentive care is going to end up liking the nurse quite a bit. This is often the persona that the nurse becomes known by, not only to patients, but also to everyone else on staff.

Later on, that same nurse may need to administer medications to that patient via IV. In many cases, IV medications come in vials in fairly small doses, but there is usually some degree of waste that occurs with most of these vials. Typically, nurses with addictions will give patients their medications and then pocket the remaining amount for themselves. However, sometimes nurses will not administer the entire amount of the dose in order to have more for themselves. There are times when the placebo effect kicks in and the patient doesn't even notice. When that doesn't happen, doctors just assume that patients need a higher dose, and nothing is ever said to the nurse who administered the drugs.

Yes, patient deception is very real, and it's happening in hospitals and clinics all over the United States.

What if you Suspect a Nurse is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol? What Should You Do?

If you're a nurse or another medical professional, and you suspect that someone you work with is abusing drugs or alcohol, the most important thing you can do is not to ignore it. Doing so puts the patients' lives in jeopardy, and it's important for the situation to be brought to light so that the right kind of help can be obtained.

Quick action is what is needed in this type of situation, and some of the steps you should take include:

  • Avoid approaching your co-worker directly because that will usually be met with denial.
  • Talk with a supervisor or someone in management about your suspicions.
  • Don't feel guilty about your suspicions or your actions of reporting the nurse, even if it turns out that you were wrong.
  • Remember that what you're doing is a service to the patients on your unit.
  • Don't discuss your suspicions with anyone else on the unit in order to protect your co-worker's privacy.

There are a lot of incentives for you to get the help you need to stop using drugs and alcohol. The first and most important incentive is that in your current state, you're putting patient lives at risk. If you're using drugs or alcohol because you're depressed and you use them as a way to help yourself feel better, finding out that your drug use has caused the death of a patient is likely to be more than you can bear. As a nurse, you want to provide your patients with the absolute best in medical treatment, but it's just not possible for you to do that while you're impaired.

Secondly, if your drug and alcohol use is discovered and you are reported, you could suffer from disciplinary action. It's possible that your employer may terminate your employment, even if you agree to get help for your addiction. The Board of Nursing in your state will also most likely suspend your license, at least temporarily. You will be required to get the appropriate type of addiction treatment at a facility, and your treatment may be mandated for several months.

It is possible for you to eventually have your license reinstated so that you can go back to work, but you will have this incident on your record, which can make it hard for you to secure employment if your previous employer has let you go. The better decision would be for you to opt to take the time off on your own so that you can get the help you need from a drug and alcohol rehab.

If you choose not to get treatment for your addiction, eventually, you will most likely lose your job and your license permanently. It's not possible to continue to use while you work in the healthcare industry, and even though you may do it for a number of years before anyone finds out, at some point, you may make a mistake that ends badly for you.

There are also some personal implications that can result. Many RNs with addictions have had failed marriages because they refused to get the professional help they needed to recover. If you spend money on drugs or alcohol, this can take a terrible toll on your finances too. The same is true if you lose your job because of your addiction. Your health is likely to suffer as well, and there have been many nurses who thought they were using prescription pain medications, but who ended up using a drug that was hazardous for their health instead.

Addiction Treatment for Nurses: Being Proactive About Getting Help

If you are an impaired nurse, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get professional help for your addiction. Unfortunately, so many nurses will not do this. Instead, they'll wait until they are caught or reported. This could have a devastating effect on your career and on your personal life.

When you choose to go to drug or alcohol treatment for nurses, you're being proactive, and you're taking the steps you need to ensure your own safety, as well as the safety of your patients. It's likely that your addiction began because of another condition you're dealing with at the same time, and dual diagnosis treatment can help you recover from both of them, giving you a better chance of being successful.

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