How to Become a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory Therapist Key Stats
Avg. Salary / year $52,950
Avg. Pay / hour $25.46
Education 4+ Years
Job Outlook 21%

A respiratory therapist tests, diagnoses, and treats patients suffering from an illness which affects breathing and lung capacity.

They work under the supervision of a qualified physician to provide a range of treatments.

If you are interested in health and wanting a career in medicine that works directly with people then you might like to become a respiratory therapist.

These professionals work in many different situations, some work in emergency care, while others provide long-term rehabilitation for patients.

When you become a respiratory therapist you could find yourself working with a wide range of clients.

From infants who have lung development problems, to elderly people suffering degenerative conditions like emphysema.

This is certainly a challenging role which also offers a high level of job satisfaction that comes from providing assistance to others and seeing positive results from patients.

Educational Requirements to Become a Respiratory Therapist

The minimum requirement to become a respiratory therapist is a two year associates degree.

This can be completed at vocational school.

More and more programs in respiratory therapy are becoming available at colleges, with some opting to take a four year bachelor degree course instead.

Physiology, chemistry, physics, microbiology, and pharmacology all form a part of the coursework required in these programs.

If you’re a high school student, you might like to study subjects such as mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics.

If your school offers any courses in health promotion then you might like to enroll in these also.

Having some work experience with people will also help if you would like to become a respiratory therapist.

If you can get a part-time job in health care then this is excellent.

You could also volunteer at a nursing home or health care center in your neighborhood.

Respiratory Therapist Job Description

When you become a respiratory therapist you will work with a wide range of patients, both young and old.

Some therapists work in emergency situations, for example evaluating the breathing of a person in cardiac arrest, and providing drugs and oxygen to help them breathe as normally as possible.

Other respiratory therapists work in a clinical setting.

They may see a wide range of patients who have respiratory problems ranging from a developmental disorder, degenerative diseases affecting the lungs, or a condition such as asthma.

In this situation the respiratory therapist will perform a range of clinical tests to form a diagnosis and will then form a treatment plan.

Treatment can take a wide range of formats.

It could include chest physiotherapy, oxygen treatment, aerosol medications, or gentle exercises which help breathing.

A treatment plan may take simply one visit, or may require many follow-ups with the respiratory therapist.

Here are some of the tasks of a respiratory therapist:

  • Meeting with patients
  • Interviews patients
  • Taking a medical history
  • Reviewing physicians notes
  • Performing tests
  • Sending away for blood work
  • Forming a diagnosis
  • Creating a treatment plan
  • Performing chest physiotherapy
  • Prescribing aerosol medications
  • Prescribing oxygen therapy

Respiratory Therapist Salary and Career Path

In all states except Alaska and Hawaii, you are required to be licensed to become a respiratory therapist.

Licensing requires an accredited degree or associates program, as well as an admissions test in some states.

Once your licensure is complete, you can begin work as a respiratory therapist.

Many work in hospitals, some in consulting suites, and others in nursing homes.

As you gain experience, you may move on to deal exclusively with patients who are critically ill.

Some respiratory therapists go on to research new medications and treatments for respiratory conditions.

The median salary for a respiratory therapist is $52,000 a year.

These specialists enjoy good job security, and there is also good growth in this field.

As the population ages there will be more demand for health services such as this.

For more information about this career path, take a look at the American Association for Respiratory Care website.

Some similar roles to respiratory therapist that might interest you include:

  • Athletic trainer
  • Physical therapist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Registered nurse

If you are looking for a secure role in medicine that works closely with people, then you might like to become a respiratory therapist.

There are lots of opportunities, good working conditions, and benefits available to those who pursue this career.

BLSThe below information is based on the 2021 BLS national averages.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

National Average Salary


Average Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
District of Columbia$77,820
New Hampshire$70,690
New Jersey$77,580
New Mexico$59,780
New York$83,510
North Carolina$60,760
North Dakota$62,230
Rhode Island$67,970
South Carolina$61,450
South Dakota$54,580
West Virginia$55,160
Puerto Rico$24,880

The top earning state in the field is California, where the average salary is $92,660.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

California - $92,660
Alaska - $83,530
New York - $83,510
Hawaii - $80,140
Massachusetts - $78,470
* Salary information based on the May 2021 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Respiratory Therapists, OCC Code 29-1126, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a respiratory therapist?

Respiratory therapists are professionals who specialize in providing treatment for the lungs.

They need advanced technical knowledge as they use mechanical ventilators and other high-tech machines.

As a respiratory therapist, you may find employment in many healthcare facilities, including hospitals, emergency rooms, therapy offices but you may also work in nursing homes, doctor’s offices or at patients’ homes.

The care that a respiratory therapist provides can help people with asthma, lung trauma, pneumonia, and other respiratory conditions.

Respiratory therapists may specialize in one or more of the following fields: emergency respiratory therapy, pediatric respiratory therapy, adult respiratory therapy, or geriatric respiratory therapy.

Respiratory therapists need compassion, patience, and they must be willing to learn throughout their careers as technology advances very fast.

How much does a respiratory therapist make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for respiratory therapists was $60,280 as of May 2018.

However, salaries vary based on a wide range of factors and respiratory therapists can make anywhere between less than $45,000 and more than $80,000 a year.

How much does it cost to become a respiratory therapist?

Respiratory therapists need at least an associate’s degree but many employers prefer candidates who hold a bachelors’ degree.

Training programs also focus on giving students the opportunity of learning in a clinical setting.

Tuition costs vary depending on the school you choose and the program itself.

Four-year bachelor’s degree programs in respiratory care cost, on average, around $30,000-$35,000 a year.

After finishing their schooling prospective respiratory therapists must pass a national certification exam and they will also need a state license provided by the American Association of Respiratory Care.

What is the demand for respiratory therapists?

The demand for respiratory therapists is expected to grow 21 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than other occupations.

This fast growth is explained by the fact that the population ages and middle-aged and elderly people are more likely to suffer from a respiratory condition.

Those who are willing to travel or relocate should have better job opportunities.

How long does it take to become a respiratory therapist?

Respiratory therapists need at least an associate’s degree, but a four-year bachelor’s degree in respiratory care will give you better job prospects.

Respiratory therapists also need a license in order to practice.

The National Board for Respiratory Care is the main credentialing institution for respiratory therapists and it offers two levels of certification: Certified Respiratory Therapist and Registered Respiratory Therapist.

If you’ve decided to start a career in this field you should be prepared to learn throughout your career as technology advances very fast in this field and continuing education classes are a requirement for keeping your license.

Jamie Willis
Career Specialist at BecomeopediaHi, my name is Jamie Willis, and I have been helping students find their perfect internships and education paths for the last ten years. It is a passion of mine, and there really is nothing better than seeing students of mine succeed with further studies.

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