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What Is a PACU Nurse, and What Do They Do?


Surgical patients who’ve received either twilight sedation or general anesthesia require specialized post-operative monitoring. Recovery from anesthesia can come with a variety of side effects, such as dizziness, nausea, and chills, and nurses interested in working with this patient population should be compassionate, highly organized, and exceptionally detail oriented.


A post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurse is a healthcare professional who provides post-operative care by paying close attention to patients’ temperature, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, level of consciousness, blood pressure, and pain levels. Individuals interested in working as a registered nurse (RN) in the PACU need to acquire the right knowledge and expertise.


An education in a related field, such as through an RN to BSN online program, can prepare graduates with the in-demand skills needed to pursue jobs in this line of work.

What Is the PACU Nurse Job Description?

PACU nurses provide care to patients recovering from different types of anesthesia. In addition to monitoring patients’ levels of consciousness and vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure, they also monitor patients for signs of anesthesia-related side effects, such as shivering, constipation, vomiting, muscle aches, and dry mouth.


Although the exact duties of PACU nurses can vary widely depending on their experience level and the facility they work for, common job duties include the following:


  • Administering pain medication
  • Updating patients’ medical records
  • Communicating with doctors, surgical staff, and other nurses about their patients’ medical state
  • Changing patients’ surgical dressings
  • Helping patients stand and walk
  • Answering patients’ questions after they wake from sedation
  • Communicating with patients and their families about at-home care procedures, such as how and when to take nausea medication

Possible Work Environments for PACU Nurses

The most common work environments for PACU nurses are hospitals and surgical clinics. Although some RNs in this field work full time for a particular institution, travel nursing opportunities are also available. Travel PACU nurses work for independent medical staffing agencies and can accept temporary, short-term assignments at facilities throughout the U.S. Assignment lengths can span from several weeks to several months, depending on the applicant’s interests.


PACU nurses often work in facilities that provide 24-hour care. Consequently, professionals within this field may be required to work nights, weekends, and holidays. In some instances, PACU nurses may be required to be on call.

Qualifications to Become a PACU Nurse

Aspiring post-anesthesia care unit nurses should start by completing a nursing degree. Although some facilities hire RNs who’ve completed an associate degree in nursing, a growing number of employers require BSNs.


Future PACU nurses also need to pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN) and gain state licensure before they can work as registered nurses (RNs). The computer-adaptive NCLEX-RN test consists mostly of multiple-choice questions, but question types such as drag-and-drop and fill-in-the-blank may also be included. The NCLEX-RN is offered year-round at various testing sites throughout the U.S.

Additional Certification

Although not required, PACU nurses with at least 1,200 hours of direct clinical experience caring for post-anesthesia patients can pursue additional certification. For example, the Certified Post Anesthesia Nurse (CPAN) certification is offered through the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification (ABPANC).


This 185-question exam is offered twice per year, in the spring and in the fall. As of September 2022, the ABPANC’s website lists the examination fee as being $350 for members of the American Society of PeriAnesthesia Nurses (ASPAN) and $424 for nonmembers. Live remote proctored online exams are available to professionals interested in completing this step from their homes, offices, or other remote sites. In-person testing is also offered at PSI testing centers throughout the U.S.

Fundamental Skills for PACU Nurses

Individuals interested in becoming PACU nurses will be well-served by developing a variety of competencies that are relevant to the field. Completing an online education, such as an online RN to BSN program, can help students cultivate these skills.


  • Attention to detail: PACU nurses are responsible for monitoring post-operative patients’ vital signs, alertness, and recovery from anesthesia. Strong attention to detail is needed to detect changes in patients’ health and recovery status.
  • Critical thinking: Critical-thinking skills help PACU nurses make decisions about patient care based on their knowledge, past experiences, and the state of the patient they’re caring for. Critical-thinking skills also help RNs identify changes in patients’ status.
  • Communication skills: A PACU nurse is required to communicate with doctors, support staff, patients, and patients’ families. Strong communication skills help PACU nurses relay complex information in language that’s concise and easy to understand.
  • Compassion: Post-operative patients are often groggy, and in some instances, they may be experiencing varying levels of pain. Skilled, compassionate RNs are likely to find they have the best job prospects.

What Is the PACU Nurse Salary Range?

The median base salary for PACU nurses was approximately $75,000 per year as of August 2022, according to Payscale , with the top 10% earning more than $106,000. Salary ranges for PACU nurses can vary based on a variety of factors, such as whether an individual works for a state, private, or federal facility; experience level; geographical location; and whether an applicant has completed an advanced education, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Become a PACU Nurse and Make a Difference in the Lives of Others

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of registered nurses, including PACU nurses, will grow by 6% between 2021 and 2031, creating 195,400 new positions during the period. Additionally, the BLS projects 203,200 job openings for RNs each year due to nurse retirements and other factors.


Professionals interested in helping address the increased need for qualified, experienced PACU nurses should start by developing the knowledge and in-demand skills needed to advance their career goals. Are you ready to take the first brave step toward a career in this highly rewarding field? Learn more about what a PACU nurse is and discover how RN to BSN online can help prepare you with the experience you’ll need to pursue jobs in the PACU.


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