How to Become a Substance Use Disorder or Addiction Nurse

Morganne Skinner, RN
Updated May 29, 2024
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Find out what an addiction nurse does, the pathway to becoming one, and salary potential.
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How Long to Become

2-4 years

Degree Required



Certified Addiction Registered Nurse (Recommended)

Drug addiction is a serious public health issue in the U.S. According to national survey data from American Addiction Centers, more than 40 million Americans are affected by substance use disorders.

Addiction and substance use disorder nurses play essential roles in helping these vulnerable populations. These healthcare professionals, also known as substance abuse nurses, provide compassionate care, support, and treatment to vulnerable individuals struggling with addiction and recovery.

Are you looking to become a substance use or addiction nurse? In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about working in this nursing specialty.

What Is an Addiction or Substance Abuse Nurse?

Substance use disorder and addiction nurses apply their knowledge of mental health and medicine to provide care for patients with substance misuse. Working in hospitals, community health centers, and mental health and rehabilitation facilities, these nurses evaluate and monitor patients, assist with care plans, and provide support.

These registered nurses (RNs) screen patients for signs and symptoms of substance use disorders, provide support during recovery, implement treatment plans, offer emotional support, and administer medications to manage withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse.

For nurses wishing to make a difference in the lives of individuals living with substance misuse issues and their families, this can be an ideal career path.

Steps to Becoming an Addiction or Substance Abuse Nurse

Becoming an addiction or substance use disorder nurse requires completing several basic steps. Specific requirements for the role may vary by state and employer, but the general education and work experience are the same no matter where you wish to work.

  1. 1

    Earn an ADN or BSN Degree.

    The first step to becoming an addiction or substance abuse nurse is earning a nursing degree. Both the associate degree in nursing (ADN) and bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree prepare nurses for this role, though BSNs are often preferred. Nurses with an ADN can enroll in an RN-to-BSN bridge program to obtain their BSN faster.

  2. 2

    Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to Receive RN Licensure

    Passing the NCLEX for RNs is required for an RN license. The exam requires nursing school graduates to apply their knowledge to different cases, ensuring they possess the necessary competency and judgment to practice nursing safely.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in Mental Health and Rehabilitation Nursing

    RNs can gain mental healthcare experience in many different work settings, including hospitals, treatment centers, mental health clinics, and psychiatric hospitals. Although some employers prefer candidates with prior nursing experience, entry-level addiction and substance use disorder nursing positions are open to those with a valid license and relevant training or coursework. New RNs can also gain experience in substance abuse and addiction treatment by volunteering with nonprofit organizations, which often need trained nurses to help provide care, education, and support.

  4. 4

    Consider Becoming a Certified Addiction Registered Nurse

    Although board certification is optional, many employers prefer or require nurses to obtain certification in their field. In the case of addiction nursing, one key credential is Certified Addiction Registered Nurse (CARN). Nurses who wish to take the CARN certification exam, which is issued by the Addictions Nursing Certifications Board (ANCB), must first log at least 2,000 hours of addiction nursing experience and 30 hours of continuing education for nurses.

Addiction or Substance Use Disorder Nurse Education

A valid RN license is required to work as a substance use disorder or addiction nurse. You can choose to attend either an ADN or BSN program, although many employers prefer nurses with bachelor’s degrees. Seek out internships or volunteer opportunities in mental health settings to build relevant experience.

ADN Degree

An ADN is the minimum degree required for NCLEX and RN license eligibility. The two-year program is the fastest path to beginning a nursing career. Although some employers will hire experienced ADN nurses for substance use positions, many prefer applicants with a BSN degree.

Nurses with an ADN can enroll in an RN-to-BSN degree bridge program to expand their career options.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; personal essay; recommendation letters; resume or CV; relevant volunteer experience preferred.

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Foundations of nursing; health assessments; microbiology and immunology; medical-surgical nursing; nursing for specific populations

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    Two years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Assessing patients; taking vital signs; caring for wounds; starting intravenous lines; charting; administering medication; providing patient education

BSN Degree

A BSN is a four-year nursing degree that combines the fundamentals of nursing practice with critical thinking and leadership skills. These skills can prepare nurses for administrative and management positions.

For substance use disorder nurses, a BSN includes electives in mental health and other related topics that prepare nurses to practice in this area. Many employers prefer to hire nurses with four-year degrees.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate with a minimum 3.0 GPA; SAT or ACT scores; personal essay; recommendation letters; resume or CV; relevant volunteer experience preferred

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Pharmacology; anatomy; pathophysiology; leadership and management; research and statistics; nursing informatics; nursing ethics; psychology

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    Four years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Hands-on patient care; nursing “soft skills” like communication, decision-making, and critical thinking

Addiction or Substance Use Disorder Nurse Licensure and Certification

You’ll need an RN license to practice as an addiction or substance use disorder nurse. Individual states may have other requirements for licensure, including a background check. Nursing licenses must be renewed according to state requirements and may require completing continuing education requirements.

The ANCB offers two certifications for addiction nurses: CARN and CARN-AP, the latter of which was designed for advanced-practice nurses. Both are optional but still preferred by many employers, as they demonstrate competence in substance use disorder nursing.

Working as a Substance Use Disorder or Addiction Nurse

Addiction and substance use disorders nurses can typically find a wide array of entry-level positions, from public hospitals to private treatment centers. The job responsibilities and salary for addiction nurses will vary depending on experience, position and role, employer, and geographic location, among others.

According to data from ZipRecruiter, as of May 2024 addiction nurses earn an average annual salary of about $85,000. Nurses with bachelor’s degrees and relevant certifications, particularly the CARN designations, have the potential for higher salaries.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Substance Use Disorder or Addiction Nurse

It takes 2-4 years to become an addiction ouse nurse depending on the educational path. Qualifying for the CARN credential takes around one year of full-time work as an RN.

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