Do you like challenging and rewarding work? Are you interested in higher pay and better hours? Is furthering your education one of your primary career goals? If you answered yes, and you’re a registered nurse, then perhaps it’s time to consider moving into a specialty nursing position within the PACU, or post anesthesia care unit.

PACU nursing is a highly qualified specialty that requires several years of working experience and additional certification. If you’re wondering if PACU nursing is a good fit for you, we’ve put together this guide to walk you through the world of PACU. More specifically, we get into what travel nursing looks like as a PACU nurse.

Spoiler alert—if you have critical care experience, strong decision-making abilities, and excellent communication skills, you just might be a good fit for the PACU.

Choosing a Nursing Specialty: When to Consider PACU

As an experienced nurse, there are many specialty units you can choose from as your career progresses. Some of these include:1

  • Cardiac
  • Critical care
  • Emergency room
  • Geriatric care
  • Surgical
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedic
  • Pediatric
  • Post anesthesia care

When entering each of these specialties, there are specific requirements that nurses must meet to be qualified for each position. Additionally, when deciding on a specialty it’s important to consider your personal interests as well.

For example, if you enjoy working with children, a pediatric specialty may suit you better than that of a PACU specialty. Or, if you prefer a fast-paced environment, you can opt to care for a high concentration of critical patients within the emergency room, rather than the slower-paced PACU.

To that end, let’s examine post-anesthesia care nursing more closely as this is a fast-growing unit with significant staffing needs.

What Does PACU Stand For?

Some of the most qualification-heavy units are those that deal with critical care patients such as the emergency room, ICU, and PACU.

So, what is a PACU and what are the differences between PACU vs ICU? The post anesthesia care unit (PACU) is where patients go after surgery. In this unit, patients slowly come out of anesthesia while being closely observed by a PACU nurse. Typically, patients spend between one to three hours in the PACU.2 Once the patient is fully awake, their vital signs are stable, and nausea has abated, they’ll be moved out of the PACU. Meanwhile, the ICU or the intensive care unit focuses more on treating patients who have acute medical conditions.

Requirements to Become a PACU Nurse

Due to the critical nature of caring for vulnerable post-op PACU patients, nurses must meet specific requirements to work in this unit. The typical requirements to become a PACU nurse include:3

  • Education – First, you must be a licensed RN before you can pursue any specialty within the field. Your education can come from an Associates’ or Bachelor’s nursing program, although many hospitals prefer BS-RN candidates in the PACU.
  • Experience – At least 1,800 hours of clinical experience as an RN are required before you can begin the process of choosing a special unit. Experience within the ER and other critical care patient units is also beneficial.
  • Certification – You’ll then need to pass an exam to become a certified post-anesthesia nurse (CPAN). An Adult Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) or Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) certification is also required.
  • Skills – Lastly, to qualify as a certified post anesthesia nurse, you must possess strong communication skills to convey medical updates to recovering patients and their family members. Additionally, you must be confident and capable of making quick decisions, staying organized, and paying close attention to detail. If you meet these requirements, you might be a strong candidate for the PACU.

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A Day In the Life of a PACU Nurse

Meeting the requirements of a PACU nurse is only a small piece of the puzzle. Nurses also have to enjoy the tasks they’ll be asked to perform as a PACU nurse since the workday of a PACU nurse may look a little different than that of an RN.4 It’ll include:

  • Monitoring patients as they wake up from anesthesia during short, one to three-hour stays following surgery
  • Checking vital signs
  • Offering comfort when patients are frightened or confused
  • Acting quickly if patients experience any complications
  • Checking wounds for signs of infection
  • Communicating with family members
  • Providing instructions for home care after the PACU patient is released

Because PACU nurses are working with patients after surgery, the work schedule of a PACU nurse is also different from that of an RN. Shifts typically last for 8 hours instead of 12 and many PACU nurses don’t work overnight hours. Weekend shifts are also less frequent as fewer patients have a surgical procedure performed on Saturdays and Sundays.

Why Become a PACU Nurse?

If you’re looking to make a hospital stay less stressful for surgery patients, then you can have a significant impact as a PACU nurse. You’ll be the first person post-surgery patients see when they wake up, and you’ll be their main source of information about how the surgical procedure went and what they can expect in the hours and days ahead.

You’ll also be a critical resource for the patients’ families. It’ll be your responsibility to update them on their loved one’s progress and provide them with instructions for post-hospital care.

Being able to advise patients on how to manage pain and discomfort and keep wounds clean and free from infection is an important component that can make home care easier for patients and their families. As such, if you feel as though you can convey critical and complex information clearly and compassionately, a PACU nursing specialty may be a viable career path for you.

What Makes a Good PACU Nurse?

Now that you know what’s required to be a PACU nurse, what a typical day entails, and why they’re critical to a successful hospital system, it’s time to examine your skills and determine if you’d make a good PACU nurse.

The qualities required of an effective nurse in the PACU include:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • Strong critical thinking skills
  • Ability to make decisions independently
  • Compassion
  • Patience
  • Capacity to manage time and balance tasks

If you think you possess these qualities, ask yourself the following questions about PACU nursing:

  • Have I been told that I communicate well? – We know that we’ve driven home the importance of communication here, but it’s a critical component of a good PACU nurse. Your instructions are crucial for patient recovery once they leave your unit. Furthermore, you must communicate information about the patient with the rest of the health care team to ensure comprehensive patient care.
  • Can I answer questions patiently? – When your patients wake up, they’ll be confused and frightened. Recovery room nurses must be able to remain patient and answer questions, perhaps multiple times. Their families may also need you to repeat instructions and offer comfort, which requires patience and compassion.
  • Do I juggle multiple tasks well? – Your job is to get the patient through their time in the PACU safely. This means closely monitoring their vital signs, pain level, and alertness. You must also be on the alert for signs of wound infection or any extreme reactions to anesthesia. Additionally, certified post anesthesia nurses typically attend to more than one patient at a time.
  • Am I comfortable making difficult decisions quickly? – If a patient suffers a severe reaction, you need to recognize the signs and react accordingly. PACU nurses are certified in Adult Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS), and/or Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) so that they can perform necessary life-saving actions.

If you can comfortably respond with an enthusiastic yes to these questions, you might make an excellent PACU nurse.

Do PACU Nurses Make More Money?

If your skills are a good fit for the PACU, then we have some positive news for you: Nurses in the PACU typically earn higher salaries than a typical RN. This is because PACU nurses deal with patients at a critical level and require high-level qualifications.

The median salary for an RN is $80,010, which depends on the number of years of experience you have and where you work.5 With overtime and additional bonuses, your salary can exceed this average. The states with the highest average nursing pay include:

  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • California
  • Nevada
  • Alaska
  • Minnesota
  • New York
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut
  • New Jersey
  • Maryland

However, PACU nurses can expect a higher median salary without having to work extra hours. Looking at PACU nurse salary, the average base is $92,397 per year.6 You’ll likely earn more money as you gain experience.

Another way to boost your income is to work as a PACU travel nurse. Healthcare travelers work short-term travel assignments at different hospitals around the country where there’s a high demand for their skills.

PACU Nursing Job Outlook

The PACU nurse job outlook is expected to remain strong over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shares the following predictions for the nursing field:7

  • Overall, nursing is expected to grow by 9% between 2020 to 2030
  • Each year, there will be about 194,500 new openings for qualified nurses
  • The PACU is expected to experience greater than average need as “boomers” reach the age where surgeries are required
  • Densely populated urban areas have the largest need for nurses

Find Your Perfect PACU Match with Host Healthcare

If you have the skills, experience, and gumption required to become a PACU RN, you’ll be entering a rewarding and challenging nursing career that’s rapidly expanding. However, if you’re looking to expand your career beyond the walls of your current hospital, consider PACU travel nursing with Host Healthcare.

When you apply and are accepted to become a travel nurse with Host Healthcare, we help you find your next job opportunity that meets your goals and abilities. You’ll earn an excellent PACU nurse salary and get the chance to travel and provide nursing care across the country. Apply today and let us find you your ideal PACU travel nursing job.



  1. “Types of Nursing Specialties: 20 Fast Growing Nursing Fields.” Gwynedd Mercy University. Nd.
  2. “What to Expect: Post-Anesthesia Care Unit.” University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. November, 2012.
  3. “How Do You Become a PACU Nurse?” May 28, 2020.
  4. “What is it Like to Be a PACU Nurse?” May 28, 2020.
  5. “Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics: Registered Nurses.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. May, 2020.
  6. “PACU RN Salary.” Ziprecruiter. September 28, 2021.
  7. Occupational Outlook Handbook – Registered Nurses. Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 8, 2021.