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How to Become a Post-Anesthesia Care (PACU) Nurse

Nurses in post-anesthesia care units, also known as PACU, support patients immediately after surgery and care for them as they wake up from anesthesia. These nurses supervise patients, check vital signs and dressings, manage intravenous (IV) fluids, and administer pain medication in what was previously known as a recovery room. Patients need the care and experience of PACU nurses as they may experience fear, pain, nausea, vomiting, or other effects following surgery. 

This blog post outlines the steps you need to take to work in a post-anesthesia care unit as a PACU nurse. You’ll learn how you can become a PACU nurse, how long it takes, and what you need to know about certification. 

How Long Does It Take to Become a PACU Nurse?


Qualifying to work as a nurse in a post-anesthesia care unit takes at least four to six years, depending on which route you decide to pursue. The first step, becoming a registered nurse (RN), can take you either two or four years, depending on whether you pursue an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). From there, you will need a minimum of one or two years of hands-on experience as a nurse in a related specialty to gain relevant skills for PACU nursing. 

Steps Involved to Become a PACU Nurse

Becoming a PACU nurse requires a combination of completing nursing school, passing qualifying exams to become a registered nurse, getting practical hands-on experience once you’re a nurse, and then pursuing certifications to support you in working in a post-anesthesia care unit. The below steps outline what you need to do in order to qualify as a PACU nurse. 

Obtain the Educational Background Needed

To become a PACU nurse, you first need to be a registered nurse with either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. 

If you’re not yet a nurse, the first step would be to look into the requirements at a local college or university of your choice. You can either pursue an Associate Degree in Nursing, which is a two-year program that enables you to work entry-level nursing positions as an RN, or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from an accredited program. Choosing the BSN route typically takes four years and is preferred by employers—although you can always take an RN-to-BSN program while working. 

When making the decision of where to pursue your studies, consider any qualifying criteria such as academic or volunteer experience, scholarship or grant opportunities, whether the program is part-time or full-time, your commute time (if applicable), internships and other practical experiences you’ll receive as a student, and the overall experience you can have. You can speak with current students, alums, and faculty, to get a sense of what you can expect as a nursing student and to help you make the best decision. 

Pass the NCLEX-RN exam

After pursuing an ADN or BSN, you need to become an RN to be a PACU nurse. It is essential to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), which will enable you to become a registered nurse. 

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), which develops the NCLEX exam, is a helpful resource when navigating issues relating to the exam, from How the NCLEX works to FAQ about NCLEX practice exams.

Passing this exam is mandatory in all states to practice as a registered nurse. 

Get Practical Experience for PACU Nursing


Once you’ve passed the NCLEX-RN and obtained a state license, you’ll need several years of experience—especially in intensive care units (ICUs), emergency rooms (ERs), or operating rooms (ORs)—to build your skills and prepare you for working as a PACU nurse. 

Working in these settings will give you experience in treating patients in critical condition and understanding the dynamics of surgeries and post-op, which is key to becoming a PACU nurse. Although every clinical setting is different, you can expect to have at least two years of experience before qualifying to work as a nurse in a post-anesthesia care unit.

Getting Certified as a PACU Nurse

To become a PACU nurse, you will typically need Basic Life Support (BLS) certifications, Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) certifications, and potentially Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) certifications, depending on the work setting. These certifications can be obtained from the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification, Inc. (ABPANC) or the American Heart Association.

You may choose to become a Certified Post-Anesthesia Nurse (CPAN), which is relevant if you’re caring for patients in Phase I post-anesthesia, which supports patients’ full recovery from anesthesia and the return of their vital signs to near baseline.

You may also choose to become a Certified Ambulatory Perianesthesia Nurse (CAPA). This credential is helpful for nurses working in pre-anesthesia, day-of surgery, and Phase II recovery, which focuses on preparing patients to be discharged from the hospital, which includes education.

You can learn more about these certifications and other aspects of PACU nursing in Nursa’s Ultimate Guide to the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU)

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Blog published on:
November 16, 2022

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