Respiratory Therapy

Types, Uses, and When to See a Respiratory Therapist

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Respiratory therapy (RT) helps people with respiratory disorders and breathing difficulties. A respiratory therapist is a medical professional who provides this type of therapy. 

This article looks at the various types of respiratory therapy, the typical duties of a respiratory therapist, and how to tell whether you need respiratory therapy. 

What to Know About Respiratory Therapy - Illustration by Michela Buttignol

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Types of Respiratory Therapy

A respiratory therapist’s specific role and duties may differ depending on where they work. 

Emergency Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists who work in an emergency or urgent care department may assist in:

  • Ventilation: This includes using mechanical ventilation for patients unable to breathe on their own.
  • Airway management: This includes assessing and finding appropriate solutions for any blockages of the airways.
  • Monitoring patients for their respiratory symptoms
  • Intubation: This is inserting a flexible airway tube into the nose or mouth to move air into and out of the lungs.

Work in the emergency department varies considerably, and things can change at a moment’s notice. Respiratory therapists who work in this setting need to be able to think on their feet and respond quickly to situations.

Pediatric Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists who work in pediatrics may work with newborns or children with breathing disorders or difficulties.

The needs of infants and children can be different to those of adults. Their treatment and care differ due to their smaller size and the nature of their respiratory diseases. Often, respiratory therapists who work with children spend more time with them than they would with adults.

Adult Respiratory Therapy

Respiratory therapists may also work with adults with chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or sleep apnea. This may involve educating patients, teaching them to use medical equipment, and giving them exercises to perform, such as breathing exercises

Geriatric Respiratory Therapy

Many chronic conditions that cause breathing issues and low oxygen levels disproportionately affect older adults. Emphysema (a progressive lung disease) and lung cancer, for example, are more common in people older than 65. 

Respiratory therapists who work with older adults need to consider existing medical conditions and medications a person may be taking.

Respiratory Therapist Qualifications

A respiratory therapist isn’t a doctor, but they are a qualified medical professional with a certification that allows them to do their job. Most hospitals and other care settings require a respiratory therapist to have at least a bachelor’s degree. 

What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?

Respiratory therapists have training that allows them to evaluate, treat, and monitor people with respiratory conditions and breathing problems. 

What to Expect from a Respiratory Therapy Session

You can receive respiratory therapy in a hospital (inpatient) or at-home, or in a clinic (outpatient). 

Respiratory therapist duties may involve:

  • Assessing you for lung or breathing disorders
  • Performing chest exams, analyzing breath sounds, checking vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate, temperature), and drawing your blood
  • Working with other healthcare professionals to determine the best course of treatment
  • Ventilator and artificial airway management 
  • Assisting with bronchoscopies (a tube with a camera is inserted through the nose or mouth to view the airways)
  • Monitoring patients who have low oxygen levels or trouble breathing
  • Teaching patients exercises to improve breathing 
  • Teaching patients to use supplemental oxygen therapy equipment

Inpatient RT

In a hospital or other inpatient setting, you may need respiratory therapy to help you breathe if you can’t do so on your own. If you’re in intensive care after a severe asthma attack, for example, respiratory therapy may involve putting you on supplemental oxygen.

Another example of when someone might need respiratory therapy in an inpatient setting is if they visit the emergency room with an acute respiratory disease. For example, someone with severe COVID-19 symptoms may need to go on a ventilator.

Outpatient RT

You may also receive respiratory therapy at home as part of a recovery program called pulmonary rehabilitation. If you have shortness of breath or trouble breathing because of a chronic condition, pulmonary rehab can help you manage your symptoms.

This type of program will often start outside the home and involve supervised exercise and being assessed by a respiratory therapist to determine whether you might require supplemental oxygen. People with chronic conditions may benefit from using supplemental oxygen at home.

If you’re doing respiratory therapy at home, a respiratory therapist may teach you how to use your prescribed medical device, such as an oxygen concentrator. If you’re able, you can then continue to use the device independently. Most oxygen delivery devices have tubing connected to nasal prongs or a face mask.

How to Know if You Need Respiratory Therapy

A healthcare provider can determine whether you may benefit from respiratory therapy. If you’re concerned about breathing issues, it’s essential to talk to a healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis.

You should never use supplemental oxygen without a prescription from a healthcare provider. Too little oxygen is bad for you, but so is too much.​​

Conditions That Might Need Respiratory Therapy

You might benefit from respiratory therapy if you:

  • Have low oxygen levels
  • Need a tracheostomy procedure, which places a breathing tube in the neck to get air into your lungs
  • Require a ventilator
  • Have a chronic condition that causes breathing issues

Conditions that may cause you to need respiratory therapy include:

What to Know When Looking for a Respiratory Therapist

If you’ll be receiving long-term respiratory therapy for a chronic condition, it’s important to choose someone you feel comfortable working with. It can be daunting to look for someone on your own, so don’t hesitate to ask your primary healthcare provider for recommendations. 

Summary

Respiratory therapy may be necessary for people struggling to breathe and in critical care. You may also benefit from respiratory therapy if you have a chronic heart or lung condition that makes breathing hard or causes shortness of breath. 

A respiratory therapist can provide you with the education and tools to better manage your symptoms. They can also monitor your progress and condition. 

You might work with a respiratory therapist if you’re in a hospital, nursing home, or another medical facility. You can also do exercises and receive supplemental oxygen therapy at home in some cases. 

A Word From Verywell

If you’re having trouble breathing or experiencing shortness of breath, you may benefit from respiratory therapy. You should consult a doctor to find out why you’re having symptoms and determine the best course of treatment. They may recommend a respiratory therapist. 

The respiratory therapist can work with you to help you manage your chronic breathing issues or low oxygen levels by giving you tools and exercises. If your healthcare provider prescribes supplemental oxygen, a respiratory therapist can teach you how to use a device if you plan to use it at home. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is schooling for respiratory therapist?

    Education after high school for respiratory therapy takes two to four years. The process involves getting a minimum of an associate’s degree before becoming licensed or acquiring additional certifications. 

  • Is respiratory therapy a dying field?

    On the contrary, the field is expected to grow in the coming years. However, more and more employers require higher levels of education and expertise from incoming hires.

  • What is respiratory therapy salary?

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a respiratory therapist in 2020 was $61,810 per year or $30.20 per hour.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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