Learn how to become a respiratory therapist -- and what to expect on the job. Includes key training, career and salary trends.

Anyone who has suffered from a chronic respiratory condition may know that the right treatment from a skilled provider can quite literally be a breath of fresh air. This is where respiratory therapists come in. These professionals are dedicated to helping patients find relief from their breathing-related ailments, and if government projections hold out, their skills are in demand.

What respiratory therapists do

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, respiratory therapists care for patients with breathing problems, such as those related to chronic respiratory diseases, asthma or emphysema. This can include a wide breadth of patients, from premature infants with under-developed lungs to sick, elderly patients. At times, respiratory therapists may need to administer emergency care to patients suffering from heart attacks or shock. The BLS notes that most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, but some work in nursing or outpatient care facilities or provide in-home care. Duties can vary from one position to the next, but often include the following tasks:

  • Conferring with and examining patients with breathing problems and issues
  • Consulting with doctors to design treatment plans
  • Performing tests that measure lung capacity or other health metrics
  • Administering treatments via machines such as nebulizers and other methods
  • Teaching patients how to treat themselves
  • Monitoring patient progress

According to the BLS, respiratory therapists need strong interpersonal, problem-solving, and math and science skills. They must also be patient, compassionate and detail oriented. As for the practical, day-to-day skills required of these professionals, those may be mastered in respiratory therapists schools.

How to become a respiratory therapist

As with many health care professions, the right training is important for respiratory therapists. The BLS reports that most professionals must earn at least an associate degree, but some employers may prefer candidates with more education. Respiratory therapists schools come in many forms, from two- or four-year colleges to Armed Forces training. Some future professionals may be able to complete at least some of their respiratory therapist education online, though they must often attend campus-based labs.

According to the BLS, as of 2013, all states except Alaska require respiratory therapists to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary, but often include training guidelines and the successful completion of an exam. Professionals who want to build their resumes can opt to earn professional certification through the National Board for Respiratory Care (nbrc.org).

Respiratory therapist salary and career outlook

How much any professional earns can depend on a number of variables, like training or experience. The table below shows what respiratory therapists might expect in the coming years, along with job growth outlook:

CareerTotal EmploymentAnnual Mean WageProjected Job Growth Rate
Respiratory Therapists132,090$63,95020.8%
2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

A growing elderly population, increased prevalence of respiratory conditions like emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and advances in medical technology are spurring demand for respiratory therapists. The BLS projects that demand for these professionals will grow by 28 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS reports that prospects may be best for respiratory therapists with bachelor's degrees or professional certifications.

Just as with earnings, location can affect respiratory therapists' career outlook.


Respiratory Therapists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed June 2019, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm

Respiratory Therapists, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistspoics, accessed June 2019, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291126.htm

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