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What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

A respiratory therapist (RT) is a health professional who helps assess and treat breathing problems. They work with doctors and nurses to evaluate lung function, develop a care plan, and provide treatment or teach people how to give themselves treatments at home.

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals and nursing homes, where they:

  • Give oxygen to people with low oxygen levels
  • Do breathing treatments that put medicine directly in your lungs
  • Provide chest physiotherapy (PT) that loosens mucus in the lungs
  • Set up and manage ventilators and other equipment
  • Monitor vital signs, bloodwork, and blood gases
  • Help provide emergency care, like CPR and airway management

Many respiratory therapists work in a clinic, but some come to your home. They may run tests to see how well your lungs work or to diagnose sleep apnea. They can teach you and your family how to use equipment like a nebulizer or CPAP, help you manage breathing disorder symptoms, or provide support if you want to quit smoking.

Education and Training

Respiratory therapists graduate with an associate or bachelor’s degree from a respiratory therapy education program. Classes include human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, microbiology (organisms that cause disease), and pharmacology (medications). Students learn about respiratory assessment, testing, equipment, and treatments. They must pass an examination to become a Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) before they can receive a state license. 

If interested, respiratory therapists can earn a second level of certification to become a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). They must get a high score on a written test then pass a four-hour clinical simulation exam.

What Conditions Does a Respiratory Therapist Treat?

Respiratory therapists help doctors diagnose and treat people of all ages. They care for newborns in respiratory distress, children with cystic fibrosis, adults with lung cancer, and older adults needing end-of-life care.

Respiratory therapists also help doctors treat:

Reasons to See a Respiratory Therapist

If you have a breathing disorder that affects your daily life and would like help managing symptoms, ask your doctor if respiratory therapy could help.

People who have long-term breathing problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (blocked airflow from the lungs) can often benefit from seeing a respiratory therapist.

Asthma

With this disease, your airways are always inflamed. This makes it hard for air to move in and out of your lungs. It causes symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. A respiratory therapist can help you understand and monitor your asthma, manage your medications, and avoid triggers that make symptoms worse.

COPD

This is another disease that makes breathing difficult. Pulmonary rehabilitation can improve symptoms and help you return to normal activities. As part of the pulmonary rehab team, respiratory therapists teach you breathing and relaxation techniques, proper use of oxygen and inhalers, and exercises to improve lung health and overall fitness.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: “Asthma.”

American Association for Respiratory Care: “Where RTs Work.”

Association of Clinicians for the Underserved: “Respiratory Therapists: Key Players in Asthma Care.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Respiratory Therapist.”

Mayo Clinic: “Respiratory Therapist.”

National Board for Respiratory Care: “Registered Respiratory Therapist.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “COPD.”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Respiratory Therapists.”

West Virginia University: “Why are respiratory therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation important?”

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