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PACU Nurse Career Guide

A happy young nurse walks down a hallway.

What Is a PACU Nurse?

About 40 million people undergo major surgery in the United States each year, and in many of these cases, a PACU nurse is the one handling their post-operative care.  

Nurses in the PACU are highly trained critical care nurses who work in a hospital’s post anesthesia care unit (PACU). They care for patients who have just gotten out of surgery and are recovering from the effects of anesthesia. Most of the time, patients don’t even realize a specific registered nurse for the PACU is providing their post-op care, but rest assured, they play a vital role in ensuring patients have a safe and speedy recovery.

What Does a PACU Nurse Do?

Nurses trained for PACU work in the post anesthesia care unit of hospitals, surgical centers, or ambulatory care centers. They’re in charge of caring for patients who are waking up from anesthesia. They carefully monitor a patient’s vital signs, assess their levels of consciousness and watch out for any side effects from anesthesia. If a patient has any negative effects from anesthesia (like nausea or pain) the registered nurse at the PACU will administer pain treatment or fluids and communicate any concerns to the doctor. 

From babies to the elderly, nurses in a post anesthesia care unit look after a broad range of patients. They work in a fast-paced environment, caring for one or two patients at a time and providing expert care before transferring them to their next destination, usually within a matter of hours.

Nurses in the PACU need to be expert communicators and collaborators. They work alongside the physician and medical staff, keeping them informed of any changing circumstances during the patient’s recovery. They’re also responsible for communicating with the patient and their family on proper post-op care, such as when to take medications and what to do if they experience pain. 

No two days look alike for a registered nurse in the PACU but there are some common tasks that you can expect to perform in this role. Some of these are similar to other registered nurse job duties, but some are different. The responsibilities of a nurse in the PACU may include:

  • Monitoring post-operative patients’ levels of recovery and consciousness from anesthesia and providing updates to the treatment team as needed. 
  • Treating pain, nausea, and other post-operative symptoms of anesthesia and administering medication as prescribed. 
  • Regularly checking vital signs to quickly intercept any potential issues and ensure a smooth recovery.
  • Keeping bandages, dressings, etc. clean, dry, and safe.
  • Educating patients and their families on post-surgery care, as well as answering questions.
  • Updating charts, patient files, and medical records.
“My WGU degree will give legitimacy to what I'll be doing over the course of my career.” Christina Carey,
BS Nursing RN-BSN

What are the Educational Requirements for a PACU Nurse?

To become a PACU nurse, you first need to be a registered nurse (RN). Depending on where you live, the steps to becoming an RN will look different based on your state regulations for registered nursing. However, the requirements for becoming an RN and then a PACU nurse are similar. It takes several years to become a nurse that works in post-operative care. In most states, you’ll need at least two years of hospital nursing experience before you can become fully certified. And depending on the hospital you work in, extra certifications may be required before you can apply to transfer to the post anesthesia care unit.

To break it down even further, here’s the general step-by-step process for becoming a PACU nurse: 

Step One: As is true of any nurse, completing training is required. A nursing diploma, an associate, or a BSN program are the ways to meet this requirement. Many registered nurses are finding that BSN programs are giving them additional training and enhanced job stability, making it a good option for their education. There are a number of programs available that offer flexible online degree options with course schedules designed to accommodate full- and part-time students. 

Step Two: Once you have a nursing degree or diploma, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Passing this means you can work as a registered nurse.

Step Three: You need to build experience working as an RN. In most states, you need to work a few years in the hospital before you can move to the recovery unit and learn the duties of a PACU nurse.  

Step Four: After you’ve gained 1,800 hours of clinical experience, you can apply to become a certified PACU nurse. 

Best Degrees for PACU Nurses

Nursing (Prelicensure) – B.S.

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you to be an RN...

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you...

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you to be an RN and a baccalaureate-prepared nurse:

  • Locations: offered in FL, IN, TX, and UT only.
  • Tuition and fees: $5,925 per 6-month term.

WGU offers the prelicensure program in areas where we have partnerships with healthcare employers to provide practice sites and clinical coaches to help teach you and inspire you on your path to becoming a nurse.

If you don't live in one of our prelicensure states or don't qualify to apply, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry, while also working directly with patients who need help.

Nursing – Leadership and Management (RN-to-MSN) – M.S.

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a substantial leap toward becoming a nurse leader.

  • Time: 75% of RN-to-MSN grads finish within 42 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,545 per 6-month term during undergraduate portion, $4,135 per 6-month term during graduate portion, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Some careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
    Chief Nursing Officer
    Quality Director
    Clinical Nurse Leader
    Project Manager

If you're driven to lead, this online nursing degree will provide you everything needed to make that career a reality.

Compare degrees
This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

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Nursing (RN-to-BSN Online) – B.S.

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking...

An online BSN degree program for registered...

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking the added theoretical depth, employability, and respect that a bachelor's degree brings:

  • Time: 66% of graduates finish within 18 months.
  • Tuition and Fees: $3,225 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.
  • Transfers: On average, students transfer 81 credits.

With over 35,000 BSN alumni, this is one of WGU's most popular online degree programs. View our RN to BSN degree guide.

If you don't currently have an RN and don't qualify for your nursing prelicensure program, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry in a unique way.

Nursing – Leadership and Management (BSN-to-MSN) – M.S.

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for greater responsibility:

  • Time: 82% of grads finish within 24 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,135 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Sample careers and jobs this degree program will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
    Chief Nursing Officer
    Quality Director
    Clinical Nurse Leader
    Project Manager

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of medical and health services managers to grow 17% by 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Compare degrees

This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

Compare Similar Degrees

Next Start Date

Start the 1st of any month—as soon as you complete enrollment!

Apply Today

Our online university degree programs start on the first of every month, all year long.

No need to wait for spring or fall semester. It's back-to-school time at WGU year-round. Get started by talking to an Enrollment Counselor today, and you'll be on your way to realizing your dream of a bachelor's or master's degree—sooner than you might think!

Learn about online college admissions at WGU.


Compare BSN and MSN degree options.

If you're a current RN there are many BSN and MSN degree options to choose from. Compare them to find the best fit for you.

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A young nurse helps a senior man as they navigate a modern building.

What Skills Does A PACU Nurse Need?

Nurses in the PACU need to have in-depth knowledge of anesthesia, as well as a strong grasp on devices such as analgesia pumps, arterial lines, I.V. or epidural infusions, and central venous lines. They should also be familiar with the effects of medications used in all kinds of procedures—from minor cosmetic procedures to open heart surgeries.

But to be truly successful in this role, PACU registered nurses should also have:

  • Sharp observational and critical thinking skills
  • The ability to stay calm under pressure
  • A knack for communicating effectively and clearly  
  • An eye for detail 
  • The ability to practice sound judgment in time-sensitive situations

How Much Does a PACU Nurse Make?

$73,300

It takes years of dedication and focus to become a PACU nurse, but the good news is, it offers a higher salary than many other nursing jobs. RNs earn a yearly salary of about $73,000, or about $35 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. However, PACU nurses with additional certifications or experience may be eligible to earn a higher salary.

What is the Job Outlook for PACU Nurses?

12%

If you’re considering a career in PACU nursing, the time to start is now. Due to the current nursing shortage, the need for qualified RNs is high with the number of job opportunities expected to increase 12% by 2028. That’s even better news for PACU nurses, who will be in high demand given their specialized skills and experience.

Do PACU Nurses Need Certification?

Yes

After completing all of the educational requirements and certifications outlined above, the next step is to become a certified post anesthesia nurse (CPAN). This is done by passing a computer administered exam given by the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification (ABPANC), the organization that oversees the CPAN certification process. The American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification also offers another certification program, certified ambulatory perianesthesia nurse (CAPA). To continue working as a PACU nurse, your CPAN certification will need to be renewed every three years. 

 

Interested in Becoming a PACU Nurse?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.

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