What Is Respiratory Therapy? (2023)

Respiratory therapy (RT) helps people with respiratory disorders and breathing difficulties. A respiratory therapist is a medical professional who provides this type of therapy.

This article looks at the various types of respiratory therapy, the typical duties of a respiratory therapist, and how to tell whether you need respiratory therapy.

What Is Respiratory Therapy? (1)

Types of Respiratory Therapy

A respiratory therapist’s specific role and duties may differ depending on where they work.

Emergency Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists who work in an emergency or urgent care department may assist in:

  • Ventilation: This includes using mechanical ventilation for patients unable to breathe on their own.
  • Airway management: This includes assessing and finding appropriate solutions for any blockages of the airways.
  • Monitoring patients for their respiratory symptoms
  • Intubation: This is inserting a flexible airway tube into the nose or mouth to move air into and out of the lungs.

Work in the emergency department varies considerably, and things can change at a moment’s notice. Respiratory therapists who work in this setting need to be able to think on their feet and respond quickly to situations.

Pediatric Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists who work in pediatrics may work with newborns or children with breathing disorders or difficulties.

The needs of infants and children can be different to those of adults. Their treatment and care differ due to their smaller size and the nature of their respiratory diseases. Often, respiratory therapists who work with children spend more time with them than they would with adults.

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Adult Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists may also work with adults with chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or sleep apnea. This may involve educating patients, teaching them to use medical equipment, and giving them exercises to perform, such as breathing exercises.

Geriatric Respiratory Therapy

Many chronic conditions that cause breathing issues and low oxygen levels disproportionately affect older adults.Emphysema (a progressive lung disease) and lung cancer, for example, are more common in people older than 65.

Respiratory therapists who work with older adults need to consider existing medical conditions and medications a person may be taking.

Respiratory Therapist Qualifications

A respiratory therapist isn’t a doctor, but they are a qualified medical professional with a certification that allows them to do their job. Most hospitals and other care settings require a respiratory therapist to have at least a bachelor’s degree.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Respiratory therapists have training that allows them to evaluate, treat, and monitor people with respiratory conditions and breathing problems.

What to Expect from a Respiratory Therapy Session

You can receive respiratory therapy in a hospital (inpatient) or at-home, or in a clinic (outpatient).

Respiratory therapist duties may involve:

  • Assessing you for lung or breathing disorders
  • Performing chest exams, analyzing breath sounds, checking vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate, temperature), and drawing your blood
  • Working with other healthcare professionals to determine the best course of treatment
  • Ventilator and artificial airway management
  • Assisting with bronchoscopies (a tube with a camera is inserted through the nose or mouth to view the airways)
  • Monitoring patients who have low oxygen levels or trouble breathing
  • Teaching patients exercises to improve breathing
  • Teaching patients to use supplemental oxygen therapy equipment

Inpatient RT

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In a hospital or other inpatient setting, you may need respiratory therapy to help you breathe if you can’t do so on your own. If you’re in intensive care after a severe asthma attack, for example, respiratory therapy may involve putting you on supplemental oxygen.

Another example of when someone might need respiratory therapy in an inpatient setting is if they visit the emergency room with an acute respiratory disease. For example, someone with severe COVID-19 symptoms may need to go on a ventilator.

Outpatient RT

You may also receive respiratory therapy at home as part of a recovery program called pulmonary rehabilitation. If you have shortness of breath or trouble breathing because of a chronic condition, pulmonary rehab can help you manage your symptoms.

This type of program will often start outside the home and involve supervised exercise and being assessed by a respiratory therapist to determine whether you might require supplemental oxygen. People with chronic conditions may benefit from using supplemental oxygen at home.

If you’re doing respiratory therapy at home, a respiratory therapist may teach you how to use your prescribed medical device, such as an oxygen concentrator. If you’re able, you can then continue to use the device independently. Most oxygen delivery devices have tubing connected to nasal prongs or a face mask.

How to Know if You Need Respiratory Therapy

A healthcare provider can determine whether you may benefit from respiratory therapy. If you’re concerned about breathing issues, it’s essential to talk to a healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis.

You should never use supplemental oxygen without a prescription from a healthcare provider. Too little oxygen is bad for you, but so is too much.​​

Conditions That Might Need Respiratory Therapy

You might benefit from respiratory therapy if you:

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  • Have low oxygen levels
  • Need a tracheostomy procedure, which places a breathing tube in the neck to get air into your lungs
  • Require a ventilator
  • Have a chronic condition that causes breathing issues

Conditions that may cause you to need respiratory therapy include:

  • Heart disease (conditions that affect the heart)
  • Heart failure (the heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply the body adequately)
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (irreversible inflammatory lung disease)
  • COVID-19 (a viral respiratory infection)
  • Sleep apnea (breathing stops and starts repeatedly during sleep)
  • Pneumonia (lung inflammation caused by infection)
  • Cystic fibrosis(an inherited condition that damages the lungs and digestive tract)
  • Severe asthma (a chronic lung disease with inflamed and constricted airways)

What to Know When Looking for a Respiratory Therapist

If you’ll be receiving long-term respiratory therapy for a chronic condition, it’s important to choose someone you feel comfortable working with.It can be daunting to look for someone on your own, so don’t hesitate to ask your primary healthcare provider for recommendations.

Summary

Respiratory therapy may be necessary for people struggling to breathe and in critical care. You may also benefit from respiratory therapy if you have a chronic heart or lung condition that makes breathing hard or causes shortness of breath.

A respiratory therapist can provide you with the education and tools to better manage your symptoms. They can also monitor your progress and condition.

You might work with a respiratory therapist if you’re in a hospital, nursing home, or another medical facility. You can also do exercises and receive supplemental oxygen therapy at home in some cases.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re having trouble breathing or experiencing shortness of breath, you may benefit from respiratory therapy.You should consult a doctor to find out why you’re having symptoms and determine the best course of treatment. They may recommend a respiratory therapist.

The respiratory therapist can work with you to help you manage your chronic breathing issues or low oxygen levels by giving you tools and exercises. If your healthcare provider prescribes supplemental oxygen, a respiratory therapist can teach you how to use a device if you plan to use it at home.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is schooling for respiratory therapist?

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    Education after high school for respiratory therapy takes two to four years. The process involves getting a minimum of an associate’s degree before becoming licensed or acquiring additional certifications.

  • Is respiratory therapy a dying field?

    On the contrary, the field is expected to grow in the coming years. However, more and more employers require higher levels of education and expertise from incoming hires.

  • What is respiratory therapy salary?

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a respiratory therapist in 2020 was $61,810 per year or $30.20 per hour.

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FAQs

What is a respiratory therapist simple definition? ›

(RES-pih-ruh-TOR-ee THAYR-uh-pist) A health professional trained to evaluate and treat people who have breathing problems or other lung disorders.

What are 3 things that respiratory therapists do? ›

Respiratory therapists work under the direction of doctors and treat a range of patients, from premature infants whose lungs are not fully developed to elderly people with lung disease. They give patients oxygen, manage ventilators, and administer drugs to the lungs.

What do respiratory therapist do quizlet? ›

What do Respiratory Therapists do? -Evaluate, treat, and care for patients with breathing or other cardiopulmonary disorders.

What is the purpose of respiratory therapy? ›

In brief, it will help those with breathing problems to not only lessen their immediate symptoms but also maintain their breathing in the future. Moreover, pulmonary rehabilitation teaches coping mechanisms as a therapeutic solution for dealing with respiratory conditions such as depression, anxiety and panic.

What does respiratory care mean? ›

Respiratory Care is the health care discipline that specializes in the promotion of optimum cardiopulmonary function and health and wellness. Respiratory Therapists employ scientific principles to identify, treat and prevent acute or chronic dysfunction of the cardiopulmonary system.

What are six important areas of study for respiratory therapists? ›

Respiratory therapy programs typically include courses in human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pharmacology, and math. Other courses deal with therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests, equipment, patient assessment, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Do respiratory therapists draw blood? ›

Other Tasks of a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists are experts in helping people breathe, but they also perform a wide range of other duties. An RT might draw blood specimens to check the level of gases like oxygen in the blood.

What is a respiratory therapist called? ›

Licensed Respiratory Care Practitioners (RCPs) regularly perform critical lifesaving and life support procedures prescribed by physicians that directly affect major organs of the body. RCPs provide care directly to the patient in either a hospital setting or the patient's home.

What are the responsibilities of a respiratory nurse? ›

To assist in the care respiratory patients including assessment, care planning, and on-going support, monitor adherence, including inhaler technique, untoward side effects of the drugs. To perform diagnostic procedures such as spirometry, capillary blood gas sampling, and phlebotomy and FENO.

Can respiratory therapist make six figures? ›

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that respiratory therapists earned a median annual salary of $61,830 as of May 2021, approximately $16,000 more than the average U.S. worker. The top 10% of respiratory therapists made more than $95,540 as of May 2021.

What is the one role of the respiratory therapist during a rapid response? ›

While this respiratory therapist resource is also spread thinly, RTs should view themselves as watchdogs who can support the afferent limb of RRSs through early recognition of respiratory signs and symptoms. Activating METs or RRTs is not simply the responsibility of nurses and house staff.

Why is respiratory protection important? ›

Respirators protect workers against insufficient oxygen environments, harmful dusts, fogs, smokes, mists, gases, vapors, and sprays. These hazards may cause cancer, lung impairment, diseases, or death.

Why is it important to study respiratory system? ›

The respiratory system provides the organism with oxygen necessary for all vital functioning and removes metabolic byproducts such as carbon dioxide. Failure of the respiratory system is related to malfunction of many organ systems with severe consequences throughout the organism.

Is the respiratory therapy exam hard? ›

The NBRC clinical simulation exam has the distinction of being the hardest exam to pass of all allied health fields. This includes nursing, radiology, physical therapy and laboratory technician board exams.

Is respiratory therapist hard to study? ›

Respiratory therapy school definitely is not easy. Students are under pressure from day one to make good grades, finish homework, complete projects, and perform well during clinical rotations. Needless to say, RT students deal with their fair share of stress.

What are the 3 most important parts of the respiratory system? ›

Trachea: Passage connecting your throat and lungs. Bronchial tubes: Tubes at the bottom of your windpipe that connect into each lung. Lungs: Two organs that remove oxygen from the air and pass it into your blood.

What are the 2 most important processes in the respiratory system? ›

The process of physiological respiration includes two major parts: external respiration and internal respiration. External respiration, also known as breathing, involves both bringing air into the lungs (inhalation) and releasing air to the atmosphere (exhalation).

Do respiratory therapists run IV lines? ›

The insertion of arterial lines is within the scope of practice of a licensed respiratory care practitioner.

Is respiratory therapy harder than nursing? ›

From speaking with medical professionals who have gone through both programs, most claim that nursing school was more challenging (for them) than the respiratory therapy program. Again, this is definitely not always the case. It really depends on your location and the program that you're interested in.

Can respiratory therapists put in a lines? ›

The American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) endorses the use of qualified and appropriately educated Respiratory Therapists to insert and perform maintenance of arterial lines.

How did respiratory therapy start? ›

The first recorded mention of respiratory care occurred in 410 BC, when the father of medicine, Hippocrates, advocated the use of “air treatments.” The profession has obviously come a long way since then, and the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) is proud to have played an instrumental part in that ...

Is respiratory therapy same as nursing? ›

Nurses have a broader scope of practice, focused on overall health, well-being and medical care for the entire body. A respiratory therapist strictly practices cardiopulmonary care, a concentration of health care centered on the functioning of the heart and lungs.

What to do after respiratory therapy? ›

Respiratory Therapist Career Advancement

Licensed therapists can either climb the clinical ladder on the way to becoming a respiratory therapy manager or director of respiratory therapy, or they can help prepare the next generation of RRTs as educators and respiratory therapy program directors.

What is the role of the respiratory therapist as part of the patient care team? ›

Maintain an open airway for trauma, intensive care, and surgery patients. Assist in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and support of critically ill patients. Provide life support for patients who can't breathe on their own. Attend high risk births and assist babies who have breathing problems.

What causes respiratory diseases? ›

Respiratory diseases may be caused by infection, by smoking tobacco, or by breathing in secondhand tobacco smoke, radon, asbestos, or other forms of air pollution. Respiratory diseases include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, pneumonia, and lung cancer.

Is respiratory therapist better than nurse? ›

In comparison to RT's, RN's generally have higher salaries, more opportunities for specialization and a wider range of work settings. RN's also have more opportunity for advancement in clinical care.

Do respiratory therapists use math? ›

Yes, respiratory therapists need to be good at math.

What is the highest pay for a respiratory therapist? ›

Respiratory Therapists made a median salary of $61,830 in 2021. The best-paid 25% made $77,240 that year, while the lowest-paid 25% made $59,280.

Do respiratory therapists give CPR? ›

Respiratory Therapists must be proficient at taking vital signs, assessing and monitoring patient's cardiopulmonary status, and performing CPR and basic first aid if needed.

Do respiratory therapists perform CPR? ›

All respiratory therapists are required to maintain a BLS certification, which includes the deliverance of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). They must also maintain an ACLS certification as well because they often work with patients in critical care units.

What is the difference between an RT and an RRT? ›

[color=#231f20]rt is the all-encompassing nickname for respiratory therapists. rrt = registered respiratory therapist. this is a credential awarded by the national board of respiratory care (nbrc). the credential held depends on the exams passed.

What are the duties of a respiratory therapist technician? ›

Employees in this job treat patients with respiratory diseases and conditions using specialized medical equipment, oxygen therapies, and manual treatment techniques; examine and evaluate patients for respiratory problems; and operate medical equipment to carry out cardiopulmonary tests.

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

Nurses assess patients as a whole. They perform head-to-toe physical assessments, integrate psychosocial needs into the plan of care, and often employ alternative medicine to care for patients. Respiratory therapists assess the cardiopulmonary status of patients and implement interventions as needed.

Is a respiratory therapist the same as a nurse? ›

General patient care: A nurse handles activities of daily living, like bathing, changing and providing a patient with overall care whereas a respiratory therapist specifically handles aspects related to heart and lung function.

Is respiratory therapist exam hard? ›

The NBRC clinical simulation exam has the distinction of being the hardest exam to pass of all allied health fields. This includes nursing, radiology, physical therapy and laboratory technician board exams.

What state pays respiratory therapists the most? ›

The highest-paid state for respiratory therapists is California with an average salary of $76,450 per year.

Should I be an RN or RT? ›

In comparison to RT's, RN's generally have higher salaries, more opportunities for specialization and a wider range of work settings. RN's also have more opportunity for advancement in clinical care.

Is respiratory therapy stressful? ›

The respiratory therapy profession is demanding and has high levels of stress, especially when treating the acute ill in hospital settings. The quality of patient education may suffer if the clinician is emotionally drained.

How many times can you take the RRT exam? ›

As indicated in the table below, candidates may attempt the Therapist Multiple-Choice and Clinical Simulation Examinations three times, after which the candidate will be required to wait a minimum of 120 days between any subsequent attempt.

How long does it take to become a respiratory therapist? ›

It takes about two years to become a respiratory therapist. Within this two-year timeline, you'll complete an associate degree program in respiratory care and the other requirements for licensure.

What is the highest degree for respiratory therapist? ›

Respiratory therapists are required to be a graduate and be awarded an associate degree, bachelor's degree, or master's degree from a respiratory therapy education program supported or accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC).

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