PACU Nurse Career Overview

NurseJournal Staff
Updated August 22, 2022
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Post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurses care for patients recovering from surgery under anesthesia. Learn what PACU nurses do and how to become one.
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How Long to Become

2-4 years

Job Outlook

9% growth from 2020-2030

Average Annual Salary


Post-anesthesia care unit nurses, also known as PACU nurses, monitor patients who have had anesthesia and prepare them to be discharged, either home or to another hospital unit.

In addition to practical nursing skills and observation skills, PACU nurses must be exceptionally good communicators. This guide summarizes what PACU nurses do, how to become one, and typical salary ranges.

Keep reading to decide if this might be the right nursing specialty for you.

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What Does a PACU Nurse Do?

adn or bsn required
Certification Optional

PACU nurses take care of patients once a surgical procedure involving anesthesia is over. They monitor the patient to ensure recovery is going as expected. Monitoring involves recording vital signs to determine when the patient is ready for discharge, and treating any after-effects of anesthesia, such as nausea.

Post-anesthesia care unit nurses also update medical records, explain any findings or results from the procedure, and prepare the patient either for inpatient recovery or discharge home.

PACU nurses primarily work in hospitals, but also in standalone surgical centers and independent practices such as plastic surgeon offices.

closeup of nurse hands on computer keyboard

JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

Key Responsibilities

  • Monitor patient recovery from anesthesia: PACU nurses ensure that patients recover well from anesthesia and that their blood oxygen levels and other vital signs are stable. They use a measurement system called the Aldrete score for this assessment.
  • Treat after-effects of surgery and anesthesia: Patients recovering from surgery and anesthesia may be nauseated, disoriented, or confused. Post-anesthesia care unit nurses provide reassurance and treat symptoms as needed.
  • Educate patient on the care plan: Especially if the patient will be discharged to go home, the PACU nurse explains care instructions and what to expect.

Career Traits

  • Communication: PACU nurses must be able to communicate results of an operation, if appropriate. and make sure that patients and loved ones understand post-discharge care instructions.
  • Attention to detail: They must be able to determine if a patient’s grogginess or other reactions to anesthesia are expected or indicate a problem.
  • Patience: Patience: Post-operative care unit nurses must be patient with the after-effects of anesthesia, which can include confusion, forgetfulness, or altered moods.
  • Empathy: Emotions run high after surgery, especially serious surgeries or ones that do not go well, and nurses need to be able to communicate empathy to patients and loved ones.

Where Do PACU Nurses Work?

PACU nurses work in hospitals, surgical centers, and other locations where patients receive anesthesia. They work as part of a team that includes physicians, surgeons, and anesthetists.

Emergency Department

Because emergency department patients are among the most vulnerable, ED PACU nurses must be able to respond quickly to changes or negative signs.

Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery PACU nurses must be able to communicate effectively with patients about what to expect and how to treat their surgical wounds.

Oncology Departments

Because cancer surgery is so emotional, post-operative and post-anesthesia care nurses in oncology departments must be especially empathetic and have a comforting presence.

How to Become a PACU Nurse

Becoming a post-anesthesia care unit nurse requires a nursing degree, either a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).

Once you graduate, you must take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and apply for your state nursing license to become a registered nurse (RN).

While there are some entry-level positions, most PACU nurses have experience in related fields before becoming a PACU nurse.

Unlike a nursing license, employers do not legally require PACU nursing certification to practice. However, many employers prefer or require certified post anesthesia nurse (CPAN) certification for higher-level roles.

The American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification (ABPANC) requires a clear and unencumbered nursing license and at least 1,200 hours of direct patient care to be eligible for the CPAN certification examination.

Learn more about how to become a PACU nurse.

How Much Do PACU Make?

PACU nurse salaries are comparable to other RN salaries. According to July 2022 Payscale data, the average annual post-operative care unit nurse salary is $75,720. Geography, experience, certifications, and responsibility level all affect PACU nurse salaries.

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track PACU nurse salaries separately, it reports that nurses in California, Hawaii, Oregon, the District of Columbia, and Alaska have the highest average salaries in the country.

Frequently Asked Questions about PACU Nurses

question-mark-circleHow long does it take to become a PACU nurse?

It takes at least two years to earn a nursing degree and become an RN. Most PACUs require or strongly prefer nursing experience. CPAN certification requires at least 1,200 hours experience in patient care as an RN.

question-mark-circleWhat’s the difference between a PACU and an operating room nurse?

An operating room nurse cares for patients during the procedure, while a PACU nurse cares for patients once they have left the operating room and are recovering.

question-mark-circleWhat skills are important for PACU nurses?

PACU nurses must be observant, excellent communicators, and empathetic. Because patients recovering from procedures may be confused, groggy, or affected emotionally by the anesthesia, PACU nurses must be especially patient.

question-mark-circleAre PACU nurses in demand?

All RNs are in demand, including PACU nurses, during the ongoing nurse shortage. The BLS projects 9% job growth for nurses between 2020 and 2030.

Page Last Reviewed 8/11/22

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