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Respiratory Therapist (RT) Career Guide

What is a respiratory therapist?

A respiratory therapist (RT) is a healthcare worker who helps people with heart and lung problems like asthma, pneumonia, and COPD (a lung condition that makes it hard to breathe). They work with all types of patients, from tiny babies who are born too soon and have weak lungs, to older people with serious lung diseases.

Duties and responsibilities

Their main job is to make sure people can breathe well when they have trouble doing so. They run tests to see how well someone’s lungs are working and how much oxygen is in their blood. They also create treatment plans that might include medicines you breathe in, physical therapy for your chest, or machines that help you breathe.

RTs are also the go-to people in emergencies like when someone’s heart stops and they need to be resuscitated. They manage life-support machines and make sure everything is working correctly to keep patients stable.

Work environment

Most RTs work in hospitals in areas like the ICU (where the sickest patients go), newborn areas, ERs, and places where they test lung function. Some work in places like nursing homes, rehab centers, or at patients’ homes.

Typical work hours

RTs usually work full-time and because hospitals need to be ready 24/7, they might work at night, on weekends, or during holidays. Sometimes, they need to stay longer than their scheduled shift, especially if there are more patients than usual or if there aren’t enough staff. In places like doctor’s offices, they might work regular hours, like a typical 9-to-5 job.

How to become a respiratory therapist

Becoming an RT involves education, hands-on training, and getting certified. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown to get you started:

Step 1: Earn an associate’s degree

Start with an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy from a school that’s approved by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). You’ll learn all about the human body, chemistry, and how to care for patients with breathing problems.

While studying, you might also want to take extra online courses to boost your knowledge. For example, you can learn medical terms on Udemy or dive into how the immune system works on Coursera.

Step 2: Gain hands-on experience

During your degree, you’ll do clinical rotations where you practice what you’ve learned by working with real patients under the guidance of experienced pros. This is where you really start to see what the job is like.

Step 3: Get licensed

Most places in the U.S. require RTs to have a license. This usually means you need to graduate, get some real-world experience, and pass a state exam. Make sure to check what your state requires.

Step 4: Pass the certification exam

After you get your degree and license, you’ll take the RT exam from the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Passing this test shows employers you know your stuff.

Step 5: Consider more certification (optional)

If you want to go further, you can get advanced certifications like the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). This isn’t required but can help you get better jobs and show you’re serious about your career.

Step 6: Start applying for jobs

Now, you’re ready to look for jobs. Put together a resume and cover letter that show off your skills and enthusiasm for helping people with their breathing. Keep learning and staying up to date on new treatments and technology to keep your skills sharp.

How much do respiratory therapists make?

The salary for RTs can vary depending on factors such as geographic location, level of education, years of experience, industry, and type of healthcare facility.

Highest paying industries

  • Outpatient Care Centers: $83,000
  • Specialty Hospitals: $80,000
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals: $75,000
  • Offices of Physicians: $74,000
  • Skilled Nursing Facilities: $72,000

Highest paying states

  • California: $91,000
  • Massachusetts: $80,150
  • New York: $80,000
  • Nevada: $78,000
  • Washington: $77,000

Browse RT salary data by market

Types of respiratory therapists

Here’s a quick look at the main types of RTs:

Pediatric respiratory therapist

These RTs work with kids from babies to teenagers. They help with all kinds of breathing problems, from tiny babies who are born too early and have lungs that aren’t fully developed, to older kids with asthma.

Neonatal respiratory therapist

These specialists focus on newborn babies, especially those who are very sick or born before their due date. They work in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and are experts in taking care of babies with serious breathing issues.

Geriatric respiratory therapist

These RTs help older people who often have lung problems like COPD or pneumonia. They know how to handle the specific needs of aging lungs and work in places like hospitals, nursing homes, or provide care in patients’ homes.

Pulmonary rehabilitation therapist

These therapists help people who are recovering from lung diseases or surgeries. They create plans that include exercises to strengthen the lungs, teach breathing techniques, and provide information to help patients manage their conditions better.

Sleep disorder therapist

Also known as sleep technicians, these RTs focus on problems like sleep apnea, where people stop breathing while they sleep. They run sleep studies, help figure out what’s wrong, and work on treatment plans, usually in sleep centers.

Critical care respiratory therapist

These RTs are the ones you’ll find in the most intense situations—like in ICUs or emergency rooms. They manage life-support machines and help patients who are in critical condition, whether from an accident, severe illness, or after a big surgery.

Top skills for respiratory therapists

Here are the key skills every RT should have:

Expert knowledge in respiratory care

RTs need to know a lot about how to treat breathing problems. This includes using machines that help people breathe, giving medicine through a mist, and knowing how to keep all the equipment working right. They use this knowledge to help people with everything from asthma to emergencies like heart attacks.

Strong communication

It’s super important for these therapists to talk clearly with patients, their families, and other healthcare workers. They need to explain medical stuff in a way that’s easy to understand and be supportive while working with patients who are scared or uncomfortable. They also need to work well with doctors and nurses, especially in emergency situations.

Physical stamina and dexterity

This job can be physically demanding. They often stand for a long time, move heavy equipment, and need to use their hands carefully to connect patients to machines. Good physical health and being able to handle equipment skillfully are crucial.

Problem-solving skills

RTs have to think on their feet. They quickly figure out what’s wrong with a patient and decide the best way to treat them. This means looking at medical info, understanding it fast, and making smart choices, often in stressful situations.


Finally, being kind and understanding is a must. Dealing with patients who are having a hard time breathing can be tough emotionally. These therapists need to be able to show they care and make patients feel safe and supported, balancing their technical skills with genuine empathy.

Respiratory therapist career path

Becoming an RT can lead to a rewarding career with lots of opportunities to grow and specialize. Here’s how the career path generally unfolds:

Start with education and certification

The journey begins with getting an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy from a program that’s recognized by the state. After that, you need to pass a certification exam from the NBRC. This is your ticket to starting work as a respiratory therapist.

Entry-level positions

Once certified, you can start working as an entry-level RT or respiratory therapy technician. In these roles, you’ll get hands-on experience assessing patients’ breathing, giving oxygen therapy, and managing ventilators.

Move up to senior roles

As you gain experience and show you’re good at your job, you can move up to positions like senior RT or clinical coordinator. These roles come with more responsibilities, like overseeing newer therapists, making treatment plans, and working closely with other healthcare professionals to ensure patients receive the best care.

Step into leadership

With plenty of experience and a strong track record, you could advance into leadership roles such as director of respiratory care or manager of pulmonary services. In these high-level positions, you’re in charge of all the RT services in a facility, manage the RT staff, and make sure everything runs smoothly and effectively.

Specialize or diversify

There’s also room to specialize in areas like working with newborns (neonatal care), children (pediatric care), sleep medicine, or lung rehabilitation. Or, you might decide to branch out into related fields like healthcare administration, teaching future RTs, or even medical sales.

The field of respiratory therapy is undergoing significant changes and facing several trends:

  • Aging population and increased demand: As the general population ages, more people are developing age-related diseases that require respiratory care. This growing need is boosting demand for RTs.
  • Healthcare cost concerns: Like all areas of healthcare, the cost of respiratory therapy is rising. To manage these costs, there will be a bigger push toward preventive care.
  • Technological advancements: Innovations in automation and more sophisticated instruments are making it possible for RTs to do their jobs more efficiently and accurately. This includes better tools for monitoring patients’ respiratory health with less direct interaction.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for respiratory therapists are expected to grow by 14% through 2031, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is driven by the increasing need for respiratory care among the aging population, as well as ongoing improvements in treatments for chronic respiratory diseases.

Respiratory therapist career tips

Develop strong technical skills

Understanding and managing medical devices like ventilators, oxygen concentrators, and nebulizers is crucial. You need to be comfortable with the technical aspects of respiratory therapy and capable of troubleshooting equipment issues effectively.

Hone critical thinking and problem-solving skills

Being able to quickly assess patient conditions, analyze data, and make informed decisions is essential. Develop your ability to think critically and solve problems efficiently to provide the best care for your patients.

Enhance your interpersonal and communication skills

Strong communication is key when dealing with patients, families, and other healthcare professionals. Learn to convey complex medical info in an understandable way and collaborate smoothly with others in your medical team.

Stay current with industry trends

The field of respiratory therapy is constantly evolving. Stay updated by attending workshops, seminars, and continuing education courses. Keeping up with the latest technologies and treatment methods will ensure you remain competitive and effective.

Cultivate compassion and empathy

Showing genuine care and understanding for your patients’ experiences is vital. Compassion and empathy can greatly enhance patient care and improve outcomes, making these traits indispensable in your daily work.

Solidify your knowledge in anatomy and physiology

A deep understanding of the body’s systems, particularly the respiratory system, is fundamental. Ensure you’re well-versed in these areas to better diagnose issues and plan appropriate treatments.

Master respiratory therapy techniques

Become an expert in the principles and practices of respiratory therapy. This expertise will make you a valuable member of any healthcare team and enhance your ability to improve patient satisfaction and outcomes.

Build your network

Networking can open doors to new opportunities and insights. Attend industry events and participate in online forums to connect with other professionals. Engage with peers and leaders in the field by joining organizations like:

  • American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC)
  • National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC)
  • American Lung Association (ALA)

Where the RT jobs are

Top companies

  • Mayo Clinic
  • Kindred Health
  • Select Medical
  • DaVita
  • HCA Healthcare

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Glassdoor
  • LinkedIn
  • Health eCareers


What are the educational requirements for becoming a respiratory therapist?

To become an RT, one must have at least an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. This program should be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. Coursework generally includes human anatomy, physiology, chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, and mathematics. After obtaining a degree, aspiring respiratory therapists must pass a national exam to become certified. Some choose to continue their education and earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field.

Is certification necessary for a respiratory therapist?

Yes, certification is necessary and a fundamental requirement for practicing as a respiratory therapist in most states. The CRT credential is a mandatory stepping-stone to becoming a RRT, which is a higher-level certification. Additionally, specialized certifications in areas like neonatal/pediatric care or sleep disorder testing can enhance professional credibility.

What types of skills are crucial for a respiratory therapist?

RTs need to have a strong understanding of medical and scientific principles. They should also be adept at problem-solving, as they’ll often need to adapt and respond to changing patient conditions. Interpersonal and communication skills are also critical, given the need to explain procedures to patients, work in a team, and liaise with other healthcare professionals. Technical skills for operating and maintaining a variety of medical equipment are necessary as well.

What are the typical work environments for a respiratory therapist?

RTs typically work in hospitals, including in specialized environments like neonatal intensive care units and operating rooms. Other potential work environments include long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, and patients’ homes. Some also work in educational settings, teaching future practitioners of respiratory care.

What does a typical day look like for a respiratory therapist?

A typical day for an RT might include assessing patients, implementing treatment plans, operating and maintaining equipment, and monitoring patient progress. They may also provide emergency care, like artificial respiration. The day might also include meetings with other healthcare professionals, patient education, and record-keeping tasks. It’s important to note that they often work long shifts that cover nights, weekends, and holidays.

Is there a high risk of exposure to infectious diseases as a respiratory therapist?

Like many healthcare professions, being an RT does carry a risk of exposure to infectious diseases. However, strict health and safety protocols, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), are in place to mitigate these risks. Regular training and awareness of current guidelines and procedures for infection control are also crucial aspects of the job.

How can a respiratory therapist contribute to patient education and self-management?

An RT can contribute to patient education and self-management by teaching patients about their respiratory conditions, explaining the purpose and benefits of prescribed treatments, demonstrating the proper use of equipment and techniques, and providing guidance on lifestyle modifications to improve respiratory health.

What role does a respiratory therapist play in emergencies?

In emergencies, an RT may be involved in assessing and stabilizing patients with respiratory distress. They can administer emergency therapies, assist with intubation and ventilation, and collaborate with other emergency care providers to ensure optimal patient outcomes.

What are the physical demands of being a respiratory therapist?

The role of an RT can be physically demanding. They often need to be on their feet for long periods, and they may need to lift or turn patients. Operating complex equipment and performing procedures that require manual dexterity is also a significant part of the job.

How is technology changing the role of respiratory therapists?

Technology plays a vital role in respiratory therapy. Advances in equipment and software have increased the effectiveness of patient assessments, monitoring, and treatments. Telehealth is also becoming more prevalent, allowing respiratory therapists to provide care and guidance remotely.