What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

If you have good interpersonal skills and you want to make an impact on someone’s life, consider a career as a respiratory therapist.

Respiratory therapists treat diseases of the lungs and airways. This includes chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, emphysema and sleep apnea but also includes emergency situations such as cardiac arrest. They work under the direction of a doctor.

They measure lung capacity and blood oxygen levels to set a baseline breathing ability and develop a treatment plan. Respiratory therapists perform chest physiotherapy on patients to remove mucus from their lungs, administer aerosol medications that help patients breathe more easily and connect patients who can’t breathe on their own to a ventilator.

Work environments can include pulmonary rehabilitation clinics, diagnostic laboratories, nursing homes and hospitals, where they work with other healthcare professionals.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this job is expected to grow 23% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Sound like a career you would like? Keep reading to learn how to become a respiratory therapist, what salary to expect, what training is involved and much more about this in-demand job. 

$ 53,300 - $ 93,200
$ 70,000
Respiratory therapist uses an inhaler to help a young girl experiencing breathing problems
Interpersonal skills are important for respiratory therapists, who often work with young children. (Credit: Teran Studios/Shutterstock)

Job Responsibilities

  • Conduct breathing exams
  • Measure lung capacity
  • Draw blood samples and analyze blood oxygen levels to assess a patient's oxygenation and ventilation status
  • Consult with a doctor to diagnose breathing conditions
  • Develop treatment plans
  • Administer oxygen
  • Aid in life-sustaining interventions, such as operating ventilators and other respiratory support devices
  • Manage breathing equipment and teach patients how to use it
  • Conduct pulmonary rehabilitation

Becoming a Respiratory Therapist: FAQs

What are the requirements to become a respiratory therapist?

All respiratory therapists must earn an associate degree in an accredited program. The Commission on Accreditation of Respiratory Care (CoARC) is one well-known accrediting program that approves programs offered at community colleges and technical schools. This short training window is one of the reasons why it's one of SkillPointe's highest-paying skilled jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree.

Some prerequisites, such as chemistry, may be required to enter any degree program.

Course work in any degree program will include human anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and diagnostic procedures in addition to supervised clinical work with patients. The clinical work allows students to learn how to care for patients under direct supervision and how to do patient assessments and create treatment programs.

What other qualifications do I need?

In addition to your degree program, you will need a license to practice. All states except Alaska require therapists to be licensed, but specific licensure rules vary by state. (See the license and certification section for specific details about your state’s requirements.) A background check is required in most states.

You may also have to pass a national or state exam. The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is the main certifying body for respiratory therapists. Through NBRC, candidates can earn a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) credential or take additional exams to earn an advanced Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential. Respiratory therapists who work in states that don’t require these exams often take the exams anyway because some employers require them.

Because the field of respiratory therapy is dynamic, continuing education is often required. This may include competency tests and new skills.

How long does it take to become a respiratory therapist?

An associate degree takes two years. 

Is there a demand for respiratory therapists?

Yes. According to the BLS, an average of 10,100 openings for respiratory therapists are projected each year from 2020 to 2030. An aging population and workers who move up and learn new skills or retire will keep demand in place.

What skills and qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?

  • Communicate and listen well
  • Are detail-oriented 
  • Enjoy helping people and are compassionate
  • Are able to handle stressful situations
  • Like problem-solving
  • Have the physical stamina to do some lifting and assisting in patient mobility
The bottom line:

This is a job ripe with opportunity. RTs are needed in many work settings, from hospital units for respiratory care, anesthesiology, neonatal intensive care or pulmonary medicine. Respiratory therapists are also needed in nursing care facilities and agencies that provide home health care. These types of facilities may be open 24 hours a day, which means your hours as a therapist may vary. This is typically a full-time job and one that requires you spend a lot of time on your feet.

If this sounds like an exciting career path, look below for more information about training opportunities in your desired area. Simply exploring training programs puts you one step closer to a new reality!

What's It Like To Be a Respiratory Therapist?

Respiratory therapist Kimby Powell with a ventilator

What's It Like To Be a Respiratory Therapist?

There are many reasons respiratory therapist Kimby Powell loves her job, but the biggest reason is that every day is an adventure — and a chance to help save lives. 

"I love being able to help them with their breathing issues and to know that I have made a difference in their lives," says Kimby.

The respiratory care services supervisor at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, relishes her supervisory role, but she never loses sight of the reason she got into this line of work — to help people with breathing issues.

Plus, that's the part that's the most rewarding. So if you want a job that will "challenge you, make you grow, push you to your limits, inspire you, humble you and have you walking away feeling great satisfaction," read this respiratory therapist's story.

Respiratory Therapist Training in Your Area

Horry-Georgetown Technical College logo

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School logo for Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana

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Bluegrass Community and Technical College logo

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Eastern Florida State College logo

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School logo for Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana

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Eastern Iowa Community College District logo

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School logo for St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron MI

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