Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse among Nurses

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Drug abuse among nurses is a growing problem in the medical field. According to the National Institutes of Health up to 32% of practicing nurses use intoxicating substances. Some believe that as many as 10 to 15% of nurses abuse drugs to the point where their performance is impaired. These substances include alcohol, prescription drugs, and illegal narcotics with opioids being the most frequent.

Although the reasons why a nurses start to abuse drugs vary, the signs and symptoms of abuse do not. There are classic indications that are obvious as well as subtle indicators specific to nurses. Seeking help begins by recognizing the signs and symptoms of drug abuse in yourself and among your colleagues.

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How to Recognize the Signs of Drug Abuse Among Nurses

Drug Abuse among Nurses

Nurses are a population that is at risk for substance abuse just as much as any other, or possibly more.

According to the US National Library of Medicine exposure to a variety of drugs, easy access, high stress levels, unusual hours and unusual working environment, make nurses a vulnerable population when it comes to substance abuse. Fortunately, knowing the typical behaviors of a nurse who is abusing drugs helps to identify a problem before it becomes a tragedy. The signs and symptoms of drug abuse in nurses include:

  • Preference for working alone – while not a constant indication, working alone provides safety from getting caught while taking drugs or alcohol.
  • Frequent use of medicinal mouthwash, the smell of mouthwash, alcohol, or other masking substances such as perfumes.
  • Arriving early or agreeing to work after a scheduled shift – this behavior is sometimes used to obtain drugs.
  • Picking up extra shifts or volunteering for isolated shifts and overtime to increase access to drugs.
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom or other isolated areas.
  • Evidence such as syringes, needles, or bloody tissues in lab coats, lockers, bathrooms, changing rooms, or call rooms.
  • Unexplained small cuts or bruising on hands, feet, and arms usually with elaborate explanations.
  • Unusual memory lapses in conversations or shift change report.
  • Lapses in charting, record keeping, orders, and timekeeping activities.
  • Mood swings with patients, irritable and complaining about a patient one minute and happy the next or drastic changes in mood after a break or period of isolation.
  • Preferring long sleeves or long lab coats, not removing coats or rolling up sleeves in warm conditions.
  • Choosing to work with little or no supervision and becoming angry or upset when help or supervision is present.
  • Volunteering to lock, unlock, or take charge of the med closet or storage area.
  • Frequent mistakes in reporting, administering, or requesting medications, patients who have had pain medication administered may complain of excessive amounts of pain or of narcotics not working after receiving them.

Although many of these are not specific to just medical professionals, these signs occur more frequently in a health care setting. This is not to say that nurses do not exhibit the classic signs of substance abuse.

You do not have to struggle with drug abuse alone. Treatment can help. Call (800) 407-7195(Who Answers?) toll free anytime to find help.

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47,300* People Addicted
23,100* Getting Help
8,209* Deaths
*Statistic from 2015

Classic Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse

These signs of substance abuse are grouped into physical, psychological, and social symptoms. The classic signs of drug abuse include but are not limited to:

  • Physical Symptoms:
    • Multiple health issues, neglected appearance, decreased coordination, increases in heart rate and blood pressure, dry mouth, red eyes, insomnia or hypersomnolence, chronic nasal drip, increased or decreased appetite, hallucinations, memory loss, shaking, sweating, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Psychological Symptoms:
    • Abandoning previously enjoyed activities, restlessness, insomnia, neglecting responsibilities, isolationism, impaired judgment, hallucinations, rapid mood changes, and panic attacks, especially when the drug of choice is not available.
  • Social Symptoms:
    • Tardiness and absences from work, suspicious behavior such as sneaking around and frequent whispered conversations, excessive partying, disintegration of friendships and relationships, neglecting responsibilities, risk taking behaviors like high risk sex, driving while intoxicated, and legal issues.

These symptoms are general symptoms of a substance abuse problem. They can occur at any time during the abuse and tend to become more severe as the abuse continues.

Personal Symptoms of Drug Abuse

When an individual is using drugs, he or she might notice changes in themselves. These changes are good indicators that substance use is becoming a problem.

  • Life becomes about the drugs, how to acquire them, when to use them, how to hide them.
  • Drug use becomes about avoiding the negative symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Drug use continues despite negative consequences such as legal troubles, job loss, work place impairment, and loss of relationships or family ties.
  • Abandoning the things that were once enjoyable such as hobbies and sports.
  • Loss of control and feelings of powerlessness when it comes to using the drugs.
  • Drug tolerance and increased usage.

If you experience these symptoms, it may be time to seek treatment for drug addiction.

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Nurses are not immune to Drug Addiction

Despite training, witnessing drug addiction, and even treating drug addicts, approximately 1 in 10 nurses become addicted to drugs or alcohol, according the American Nurses Association and the Modern Medicine Network. The signs and symptoms of drug abuse among nurses often go unnoticed due to the nature of their jobs. Many indicators of addiction are also indicators of a high stress medical work environment and routine patient care. Due to the nature of the job, nurses are more susceptible to drug addiction than many other professions. It is important to be able to recognize the signs of drug abuse before it becomes lethal to a patient or the nurse themselves.

If you recognize drug abuse in yourself or a friend call (800) 407-7195(Who Answers?) toll free to find help today.

the Take-Away

Nurses are in a position where they can easily access drugs, yet they witness their dangers on a daily basis. Still, many nurses end up having problems with drug abuse and need help.