What Is a Respiratory Therapist?

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:

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.

Inpatient Therapy

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

Outpatient Therapy

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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on May 24, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Respiratory Therapist.”

Mayo Clinic: “Explore Health Careers Respiratory Therapist.”

American Association for Respiratory Care: “How RTs are Involved in the Early Diagnosis of COPD,” “Respiratory Therapists: Warriors in the Fight Against COVID-19.”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Occupational Outlook Handbook - Respiratory Therapist.”

University of Kansas Medical Center: “Department of Respiratory Care and Diagnostic Science.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Pulmonary Rehabilitation.”

Concorde: “What does a Respiratory Therapist Do?”

Ellen Becker, PhD, RRT, RPFT, AE-C, FAARC, professor of respiratory care, Rush University Medical Center.

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