Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists care for people who suffer from breathing problems. Their patients' ages and ailments vary dramatically, so respiratory therapists are trained to handle a wide range of breathing difficulties, including both chronic and emergency situations that may affect anyone from premature infants to the elderly. Such work requires a high degree of compassion and exacting attention to detail, but it also demands a sophisticated knowledge base.

Respiratory therapy programs

An education in respiratory therapy can prepare future professionals for scenarios they might encounter during a day on the job. Aspiring respiratory therapists can expect to be instructed in the following:

  • How to interview and examine patients
  • How to conduct diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity
  • A variety of treatment methods, including chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications
  • Teaching patients how to use treatments
  • Supervision of respiratory technicians, as well as interpretation of a technician's findings

Respiratory therapy degree programs

Respiratory therapists typically hold associate degrees, but some employers may prefer to hire candidates with bachelor's degrees. Respiratory therapy programs are common throughout the American collegiate system; institutions ranging from four-year universities to vocational schools and the Armed Forces all offer specialized education and training to students pursuing careers as respiratory therapists.

Respiratory therapy programs are predictably science-heavy and offer courses like:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics

Some respiratory therapy schools may also require ancillary courses that deal with topics such as ethics or adult critical care. Programs offer dedicated lab time that allows students to gain ample experience in a clinical setting while earning course credits they can apply towards their degrees.

Training to become a respiratory therapist

All states except Alaska require practicing respiratory therapists to be licensed. The path to licensure varies by state but, in general terms, involves passing a state or professional certification exam.

Students considering respiratory therapy programs may also be curious about similar professional options. Here are a few related fields with similar educational requirements. All salary figures are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and reflect 2014 data:

  • Athletic trainers - bachelor's degree, salary: $45,730 mean annual pay
  • Registered nurses - associate degree, salary: $69,790 mean annual pay
  • Radiation therapists: associate degree, salary: $83,710 mean annual pay
  • Dental hygienists: associate degree, salary: $71,970 mean annual pay

In addition, respiratory therapists in some hospitals specialize in a specific area of practice, such as diagnosing breathing problems for people who suffer from sleep apnea, or providing counsel to people who wish to quit smoking.

Career outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects employment of respiratory therapists to increase by 19% between 2012 and 2022, a figure that sits comfortably above the national average for any occupation. The BLS also notes that job prospects favor those who are willing to travel to find work. Some areas already have a surfeit of respiratory therapists, while others, often rural, are particularly in need of qualified applicants.

As of May 2014, respiratory therapists earned a mean annual wage of $58,490, and those who represented the top ten percent of earners made just shy of $80,000. California, Nevada, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Alaska topped the BLS' list of top-paying states for this occupation.


  1. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/
  2. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/

Respiratory Therapy Schools

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