Respiratory therapists are certified medical professionals who treat problems with your lungs or breathing. They’re not doctors. But they work closely with your doctors to diagnose and monitor your condition.
Why You Might Need a Respiratory Therapist
Respiratory therapists handle breathing or airway problems that can stem from a wide variety of conditions and events. They include:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome. This is a very serious condition that can happen after an injury or illness like COVID-19, which is caused by the new coronavirus
- Cystic fibrosis
- Spinal muscular dystrophy
- Parkinson’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
- Auto accidents or other trauma that prevents you from breathing on your own
- Babies who are born prematurely before their lungs are fully grown
- Sleep apnea
What Do Respiratory Therapists Do?
They may work in emergency rooms, intensive care units, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, or sleep centers. Some specialize in working with infants and babies, or with seniors.
The respiratory therapy you need depends largely on whether you’re in a hospital, how seriously ill you are, and the reason behind your breathing issues. If you’re hospitalized, your respiratory therapist may:
- Intubate you by inserting a tube through your mouth down to your windpipe
- Monitor your breathing and other vital signs on the ventilator
- Take your blood to check your oxygen levels and other results
- Give you medications through mist, dry powder, or other inhalers
- Consult with your doctors to clear mucus from your lungs or to expand collapsed lungs
- Test how well your lungs work, including how deeply you can breathe
You may get this if you have an ongoing condition such as COPD. Your therapist may run tests similar to what you’d get at the hospital, including blood oxygen tests and lung function tests like spirometry.
They also will help you understand how best to manage your illness. They may teach you how to:
- Prevent your symptoms
- Follow your treatment plan at home
- Know when you should call your doctor
What to Expect on Your Visit
If you have an appointment with your respiratory therapist, your experience may differ depending on the reasons for your visit.
For example, someone going in for an asthma checkup may have different procedures than people who have lung cancer. Any preparations for your appointment, such as whether you need to stop taking certain medications beforehand, also may depend on your specific medical condition.