Alcohol and drug abuse among nurses is an unfortunate reality of such a high-pressure job with long hours and exacting demands. Nurses protect people and provide care and treatment as the first and last line of defense of patient care. Long work hours and such a focus on other people’s wellness can lead to neglect of self-care or the need to self-medicate. Impaired nurses pose a danger to their patients, so it’s crucial that anyone in the profession who suspects they might have a substance use disorder seek treatment immediately.

Mental illness is common among nurses, who can be prone to difficulty in their personal life due to a skewed work-life balance. Learn more about substance use among nurses, why they can be at a greater risk of a disorder and how to get treatment for a substance use disorder so they can practice safely.

At Greenbranch Recovery, we pride ourselves of putting front line workers, like nurses, at the forefront of our alcohol and drug addiction treatment programs. With our caring and thoughtful outpatient programs, we will address your stressors that led to addiction, and how we can help lead you away from them, into addiction recovery. Moreover, Greenbranch Recovery offers a PHP program for addiction recovery, where you will work one-on-one, daily, with our trained support staff to overcome drug or alcohol abuse.


How Common Is Substance Abuse Among Nurses?

Nursing professionals, specifically students, are at a significantly higher risk of binge drinking than the general population. While the rate of drug use is similar to that of the rest of the population, the risks associated with substance abuse are significantly higher. The American Nurses Association estimates that 10% of nurses are impaired by substance use or physical illness.

There are a number of reasons nurses in professional practice might develop a substance use disorder. The stresses of providing competent care are obvious, but the pressures of the work environment, physical demands and proximity to medications also play a role.


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What Makes Registered Nurses Susceptible to Substance Abuse Issues?

Not only are nurses responsible in life or death situations, they also work long hours and have much easier access to substances than most people. There are several reasons nurses can be susceptible to harmful drug or alcohol use.


Nurses regularly work shifts of 12 hours or longer, often with staff shortages due to burnout, which is very common among nurses. Long hours under demanding circumstances can lead to emotional and physical pain. For a lot of nurses, substance abuse reflects the need for pain relief, whether it’s to soothe mental health or ease discomfort in the feet or back.

Exposure to Stress

Like any professional, nurses are at risk for stressors such as workplace bullying among colleagues, job insecurities and increasing demands. However, compared to the general population, the responsibility over life and death looms over them. It’s difficult for someone who isn’t in the medical profession to truly comprehend the immense pressure on nurses, and work-induced stress is very common.

While it’s not common for people to actively think about feeling stressed and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, this happens with many nurses who struggle with substance abuse. Alcohol gives the impression of easing tension and provides relaxation and relief quickly, potentially helping someone unwind after a difficult day. Using substances to produce these types of effects is highly dangerous and puts someone at a major risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Accessibility of Narcotic Medications and Other Controlled Substances

Nurses have greater access to pain medication and other narcotics for personal use compared to the general population. Proximity and opportunity can significantly increase risk when it comes to addiction, particularly as nurses can see the relieving impact of certain medications on patients. Being around medications all day can increase cravings and increase the temptation to take drugs.

Keep in mind that accessibility alone is unlikely to cause addiction. Genetic and environmental risk factors usually also need to be present for onset of a substance abuse disorder.


Common Substance Use Disorders Among Nurses

Signs of a Substance Abuse Problem

While it’s easy for some people to hide addiction — even from themselves — some telltale signs include:


  • Excessive fatigue
  • Tremors
  • Smell of alcohol
  • Frequent use of mints and mouthwash
  • Rapid weight changes
  • Large or small pupils
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom


  • Runny nose
  • Neglect of physical appearance
  • Mood swings
  • Inappropriate displays of emotion
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Insomnia or frequently sleeping in
  • Hyperactivity
  • Lethargy

Common Substance Use Disorders Among Nurses

Some substance abuse disorders are more common among nurses, partially due to accessibility but also due to the soothing or pain-killing effects. These include:

  • Alcohol dependence and binge drinking
  • Prescription painkillers such as oxycodone or hydrocodone

Nurses are particularly at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, although factors such as family history, trauma and other environmental and genetic factors are thought to play a more prominent role. Excessive drinking can be more accepted in some nursing circles and be excused as a method of unwinding after a hard day’s work or simply enjoying a good time.

Other drugs nursing professionals might turn to include:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Barbiturates
  • Amphetamines
  • Sedatives
  • Tranquilizers

What Does Specialized Treatment for Nurses Look Like?

If you or a loved one is a nurse considering addiction treatment, you might wonder what happens at rehab. Below is a breakdown of what to expect during a drug or alcohol rehab program.

Behavioral Therapy To Treat Substance Use Disorders

All of our therapists are trained in the unique pressures and stressors of first responders such as nurses. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the primary approaches and is the most researched and recommended by experts in the field. During sessions, a therapist helps the client recognize unhelpful patterns of thinking that lead to unwanted behaviors. They then help patients learn how to pause between feelings and behaviors and develop new coping mechanisms to avoid turning to substance abuse.


Some people require medication to ease withdrawal symptoms and kick-start the recovery process. Medication isn’t offered as a replacement for a person’s substance of choice but used under controlled circumstances and then tapered off once the individual is ready.

Group Therapy for Health Care Professionals

Group therapy is a cornerstone of addiction treatment because it helps people relate to each other, understand substance abuse through different perspectives and be open about thoughts and emotions. Attending group sessions with other first responders can show how the pressures of these types of jobs can lead to addiction and help you stop blaming yourself.

Family Therapy

Addiction is often touted as a family disease because of the toll it can take on the sufferer’s loved ones. The pain and confusion can lead to unhelpful behaviors in the family that don’t support recovery. During family therapy, you and your loved ones learn how to communicate, set boundaries and support recovery in the most healthy and constructive way.

Holistic Therapies for Well-Being

While there’s plenty of work involved in recovery, relaxation and recuperation are also vital elements. Holistic treatments such as meditation, yoga, massage and aromatherapy can help you unwind during the addiction treatment process.


While rehab is the crucial starting point of recovery, it’s only the beginning of the journey. Addiction recovery for nurses is an ongoing process, and the best rehab programs provide a comprehensive aftercare plan. Once you go back to work, you’ll be faced with medications on a regular basis. As such, it’s vital that you have coping mechanisms and someone to help you deal with the situation if cravings arise. By actively maintaining recovery and not getting complacent, you have the best chance of sustaining sobriety in the long term.

Addiction Treatment for People in the Nursing Profession

As a nurse, keeping patients safe is your priority. Get treatment for a substance use disorder so you avoid impaired practice and protect patients. Call Greenbranch Recovery today at (609) 622-5101.