Nurses and Drug Addiction


Men and women who work in the nursing profession are constantly in the presence of powerful, pharmaceutically pure and highly addictive substances. So it should surprise no one that drug abuse and addiction are quite common in the nursing profession. When diagnosed, it is often referred to as substance use disorder in nursing.

Percentage of Nurses Abusing Drugs or Alcohol

While the U.S. government estimates that more than 22 million people in the country abuse drugs, alcohol or both, the American Nurses Association estimates that between six and eight percent of nurses currently "use alcohol or drugs to an extent that is sufficient to impair professional performance," according to a publication issued by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Some believe that the figure should be higher, at least high enough to reflect the addiction rate of the general public, which is somewhere between 10 and 15 percent.

Either way, it doesn't take much to realize that approximately one in eight nurses is currently abusing drugs or alcohol in some manner.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction in Nurses

In many instances, the signs and symptoms of addiction in nurses are no different than they are for the general population; however, because nurses may be working among the prescription drugs to which they are addicted, there are some more specific signs and symptoms, including:

  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination problems
  • Impaired memory
  • Short, frequent disappearances from the workplace
  • Frequent tardiness or absences that are poorly explained
  • Coming to work on days off
  • Volunteering for overtime
  • Suspicious behavior during narcotic counts
  • Constantly volunteering to administer medications
  • Waiting to be alone to open a narcotic cabinet
  • Lack witnesses to verify the wasting of unused medications

Nurses who have addiction problems seriously jeopardize the health of the patients they are assigned to overlook. They could react slowly to emergencies or be absent when they occur. They could be diverting drugs meant for patients, neglecting some patients altogether, or making any number of medical errors.

Making it Easier for Addicted Nurses to Come Forward

In recent years, laws and other guidelines for either reporting or self-reporting addicted nurses and other health care professionals have become more proactive and less punitive, allowing for a more open culture in which nurses can feel more comfortable coming forward and seeking help for their addiction, without fear of legal reprisals or the fear of eliminating any chance of being rehired.


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