Respiratory Therapist (2024)

What is a respiratory therapist?

A respiratory therapist (RT) is a healthcare provider who helps diagnose, treat and manage conditions that affect your lungs. They aren’t doctors, but they work alongside physicians and other healthcare providers to develop treatment plans to help restore or maintain lung and breathing function.


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What does a respiratory therapist do?

Respiratory therapists help treat people of all ages who have breathing (respiratory) issues. These problems may arise as a result of:

  • Lung disease.
  • Injury.
  • Surgery.

They may teach you about lung disease to maximize your recovery. The care you receive from a respiratory therapist may occur in an inpatient healthcare facility, outpatient clinic or your home.

Some procedures that RTs perform include:

  • Pulmonary function testing.
  • Oxygen therapy.
  • Blood oxygen level testing.
  • Mechanical ventilation.
  • Airway management.
  • Removing mucus (sputum) using airway clearance techniques.
  • Giving medications, including inhalants.
  • Inserting a tube through your mouth or nose and down your windpipe to allow breathing (intubation).
  • Assessing and monitoring breathing.
  • Bronchoscopy assistance.
  • Participate in critical care transport (CCT), such as riding in an ambulance, helicopter or airplane.

What are common conditions that a respiratory therapist treats?

Some of the most common respiratory conditions that a respiratory therapist may treat include:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
  • Acute (sudden) respiratory failure.
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
  • Asthma.
  • Bronchiolitis.
  • Bronchitis.
  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD).
  • Chest trauma that keeps you from breathing without assistance.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Cystic fibrosis.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Sleep-related breathing disorders, including sleep apnea.
  • Spinal muscular dystrophy.


How long does it take to become a respiratory therapist?

To become a respiratory therapist, you must:

  • Complete either a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree program.
  • Pass the national Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) exam.
  • Obtain a state license to work as a respiratory therapist.

Is becoming a respiratory therapist hard?

Respiratory therapy programs can be challenging. You must be good in math and science. You must study, complete homework and projects, get good grades and perform well during clinical rotations. During clinical rotations, a practicing respiratory therapist and/or other medical professionals supervise you as you learn and practice respiratory therapy. During your clinical rotations, you may:

  • Interview patients.
  • Conduct examinations.
  • Review lab or test data.
  • Identify conditions.
  • Teach breathing exercises.
  • Use respiratory equipment.
  • Give medications.
  • Take blood samples.
  • Talk to doctors and nurses.

When should I see a respiratory therapist?

A healthcare provider may refer you to a respiratory therapist if you have symptoms that affect your breathing or lungs. These may include:

  • Cough.
  • Coughing up blood or mucus.
  • Wheezing.
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea).
  • Chest pressure.
  • Chest pain.
  • Abnormal chest X-ray results.
  • Abnormal blood oxygen testing results.


What does a respiratory therapist do on a first visit?

During your first visit, your respiratory therapist will:

  • Look over your medical records.
  • Ask about your symptoms.
  • Perform a physical examination.
  • Measure your blood oxygen levels.
  • Provide education on your doctor’s prescribed treatment.
  • Administer the treatment and monitor your response.

What are the pros and cons of being a respiratory therapist?

Pros of being a respiratory therapist include:

  • You’re having a positive effect on someone’s life.
  • Many colleges and universities offer some components of respiratory therapy programs online.
  • The average respiratory therapist’s salary in 2021 was almost $62,000.
  • You should be able to find a job easily. The RT field is growing quickly, and labor experts expect it to keep growing.
  • There’s career growth. You can get an advanced degree in respiratory therapy that may allow you to hold a managerial position, teach or perform research.
  • You may be able to travel. Healthcare facilities nationwide recognize the RRT credential.
  • You can work full-time, part-time or per diem (allowances for lodging, meals and other travel expenses).

Cons of being a respiratory therapist include:

  • At a minimum, you must have an associate’s degree from an accredited respiratory therapy program. Most programs take at least two years to complete.
  • If you live in the United States, each state (except Alaska) requires you to take a licensing exam to work as a respiratory therapist. You must recertify your credentials every five years.
  • You may work long hours. Shifts may last from eight to 13 hours a day.
  • The job can be physically tiring. You may be on your feet most of the day.
  • You may have to work night shifts.
  • You may have to work on weekends and holidays.

Is a respiratory therapist a good career choice?

Like all other jobs, there are pros and cons to being a respiratory therapist. If you’re looking for a stable career in a field that experts predict will continue to grow, being a respiratory therapist may be a good job for you. Many respiratory therapists also feel personal satisfaction knowing that they’re helping others.

What is the difference between a respiratory therapist and a nurse?

Respiratory therapists help diagnose and treat conditions that affect your breathing and lungs. They must receive an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy from an accredited college or university.

Nurses are also licensed healthcare professionals that must receive an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) or graduate-level degree in nursing (nurse practitioner, or NP) from an accredited nursing program. They may perform basic medical tasks, including:

  • Checking vital signs.
  • Feeding patients.
  • Bathing patients.
  • Changing bandages.
  • Administering medications.
  • Performing physical examinations.
  • Order tests.
  • Analyze test results.

Nurses can focus on respiratory conditions but may also specialize in other areas.

Is it harder to become a nurse or a respiratory therapist?

Nurses and respiratory therapists require virtually the same level of education. Both positions also require you to renew your license every few years.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Respiratory therapists are healthcare providers who specialize in caring for your lungs and treating conditions that affect your breathing. Your primary care provider or another provider may refer you to a respiratory therapist while you’re in the hospital, in the emergency department or as an outpatient. They may work together to help develop a treatment plan.

If you have any questions, your respiratory therapist is there to help. They want to help you treat or manage your condition in the best way possible and support you.

Respiratory Therapist (2024)


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