Respiratory therapists care for patients who have trouble breathing—for example, because of conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Their patients range from premature infants with undeveloped lungs to older adults whose lungs are diseased.


Respiratory therapists typically do the following:

  • Interview and examine patients with breathing or cardiopulmonary disorders
  • Consult with physicians about patients’ conditions and developing treatment plans
  • Perform diagnostic tests
  • Treat patients using a variety of methods
  • Monitor and record patients’ progress
  • Teach patients how to take medications and use equipment

Respiratory therapists work closely with registered nurses, physicians and surgeons, and medical assistants. They use various tests to evaluate patients. For example, respiratory therapists administer pulmonary function tests to assess lung capacity by having patients breathe into an instrument that measures the volume and flow of oxygen when they inhale and exhale. Therapists also may take blood samples and use a blood gas analyzer to test oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

Respiratory therapists also perform treatment to clear airways for improved breathing. For example, therapists may do chest physiotherapy to remove mucus from the lungs by tapping the patient’s chest and encouraging him or her to cough.

Respiratory therapists in emergency settings may connect patients who cannot breathe on their own to ventilators that deliver oxygen to the lungs. They set up and monitor the equipment to ensure that the patient is receiving the correct amount of oxygen at the correct rate.

Respiratory therapists who work in home care teach patients and their families to use ventilators and other life-support systems. During these visits, they may inspect and clean equipment, check the home for environmental hazards, and ensure that patients know how to use their medications. Therapists also make emergency home visits when necessary.

In some medical facilities, respiratory therapists are involved in related areas, such as diagnosing breathing problems for people with sleep apnea and counseling people on how to stop smoking.

Work Environment

Respiratory therapists held about 135,800 jobs in 2021. The largest employers of respiratory therapists were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private 82%
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)                 4
Offices of physicians 2

Respiratory therapists work in various areas of a hospital, including emergency rooms, critical care units, and neonatal intensive care units.

Respiratory therapists may stand for long periods and may need to lift or turn patients.

Injuries and Illnesses

Like other healthcare workers, respiratory therapists may be exposed to patients who have infectious diseases. They also may experience strains or sprains when lifting or turning patients. Because of this, they must take precautions to minimize their risk of illness or injury.

Work Schedules

Most respiratory therapists work full time. Because they may work in medical facilities that are always open, such as hospitals, they may have shifts that include nights, weekends, or holidays.

Education and Training

Respiratory therapists typically need an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy. Some employers prefer to hire candidates who have a bachelor’s degree. Respiratory therapists must be licensed in all states except Alaska; requirements vary by state.


Respiratory therapists typically need at least an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy from a program approved by the American Medical Association, such as those accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC). Employers may prefer that applicants have a bachelor’s degree.

Some programs require applicants to fulfill prerequisites. High school students interested in applying to respiratory therapy programs should take courses in biology, algebra, chemistry, and physics.

In addition to respiratory therapy programs offered by colleges and vocational–technical institutes, a CoARC-accredited program in the Armed Forces leads to an associate’s degree.

Respiratory therapy programs typically include courses in human anatomy and physiology, and therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and tests. These programs also have clinical components that allow students to gain supervised, practical experience in treating patients.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Respiratory therapists are required to be licensed in all states except Alaska, where national certification is recommended. Licensure requirements vary but usually include passing a state or professional certification exam. For specific requirements, contact a state’s health board.

The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) is the main certifying body for respiratory therapists. The Board offers two levels of certification: Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). Candidates typically sit for the CRT exam. After successful completion, CRTs may take an additional exam to earn RRT certification. Some employers require that candidates earn RRT certification before being hired or within a specified amount of time on the job.

Personality and Interests

Respiratory therapists typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Helping interest which might fit with a career as a respiratory therapist, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Respiratory therapists should also possess the following specific qualities:

Compassion. Respiratory therapists should be able to provide emotional support to patients undergoing treatment and be sympathetic to their needs.

Detail oriented. Respiratory therapists must be detail oriented to ensure that patients are receiving the appropriate treatments and medications in a timely manner. They must also monitor and record various pieces of information related to patient care.

Interpersonal skills. Respiratory therapists interact with patients and often work as part of a team. They must be able to follow instructions from a supervising physician.

Patience. Respiratory therapists may work for long periods with patients who need special attention.

Problem-solving skills. Respiratory therapists need strong problem-solving skills. They must evaluate patients’ symptoms, consult with other healthcare professionals, and recommend and administer the appropriate treatments.

Science and math skills. Respiratory therapists must understand anatomy, physiology, and other sciences and be able to calculate the right dose of a patient’s medicine.


The median annual wage for respiratory therapists was $61,830 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $47,380, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $95,540.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for respiratory therapists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private $61,940
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)                60,570
Offices of physicians 60,570

Most respiratory therapists work full time. Because they may work in medical facilities that are always open, such as hospitals, they may have shifts that include nights, weekends, or holidays.

Job Outlook

Employment of respiratory therapists is projected to grow 14 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 9,400 openings for respiratory therapists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire. 


Growth in the older adult population will lead to an increased prevalence of respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other disorders that restrict lung function. This, in turn, will lead to increased demand for respiratory therapy services and treatments, mostly in hospitals.

In addition, a growing emphasis on reducing readmissions to hospitals and on providing patient care in outpatient facilities may result in more demand for respiratory therapists in health clinics and in doctors’ offices.

Other respiratory conditions that affect people of all ages, such as problems due to smoking and air pollution or those arising from emergencies, will continue to create demand for respiratory therapists.

For More Information

For more information about respiratory therapists, including a list of state licensing agencies, visit

American Association for Respiratory Care

For a list of accredited educational programs for respiratory care practitioners, visit

Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care

For information on gaining credentials in respiratory care, visit

The National Board for Respiratory Care




Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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