A respiratory therapist is a medical professional who specializes in the care of patients with cardiopulmonary disorders. They work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities, and provide treatment to patients of all ages.
If you’re interested in a career in this field, you’re probably wondering: How long does it take to become a respiratory therapist?
It typically takes two to four years to become a respiratory therapist, depending on the educational route you take. Students must complete an accredited respiratory therapy program, which typically lasts two years.
However, most schools require students to complete prerequisite courses before starting the program. These courses can add 1–2 years to the total time required to become a respiratory therapist.
Average Respiratory Therapy School Length
The average time it takes to become a respiratory therapist is approximately three years. This includes the time it takes to complete prerequisite courses, as well as an accredited respiratory therapy program.
For example, most students can complete the prerequisite courses in one year. Then, they would complete a two-year respiratory therapy program. This would bring the total time to three years.
However, some students may take longer to complete the prerequisite courses. This could extend the total time required to become a respiratory therapist to four years.
There are also accelerated respiratory therapy programs that can be completed in as little as 18 months. These programs are designed for students who have already completed the prerequisite courses.
What is a Respiratory Therapist?
A respiratory therapist is a medical professional who specializes in the treatment of patients who are having difficulty breathing. This means that they treat patients with conditions of the cardiopulmonary system.
Respiratory therapists work in all parts of the hospital, including the general patient floors, emergency room, intensive care unit, operating room, and sleep laboratory. They also work in outpatient clinics and pulmonary rehabilitation centers.
Respiratory therapists care for patients of all ages, from newborns to the elderly. They work with a team of medical professionals to develop individualized treatment plans for each patient.
What Does a Respiratory Therapist Do?
Respiratory therapists have a wide range of responsibilities. Some of their duties include:
- Assessing patients for lung disease
- Administering aerosol medications to a patient’s lungs
- Administering oxygen therapy
- Administering lung expansion therapy
- Administering chest physical therapy (CPT)
- Administering airway clearance therapy to remove mucus
- Managing patients who are on the mechanical ventilator
- Assisting with endotracheal intubation
- Assisting with a bronchoscopy procedure
- Drawing and analyzing an arterial blood gas (ABG)
- Designing and implementing treatment plans
- Managing patients with a tracheostomy
- Suctioning and analyzing sputum specimens
- Analyzing chest x-rays
- Assessing vital signs
- Performing electrocardiogram tests (ECG)
- Performing pulmonary functions tests (PFT)
- Responding to Code Blue and emergency situations
- Assisting with pulmonary rehabilitation
- Performing studies and research related to the cardiopulmonary system
- Educating patients on smoking cessation
Respiratory therapists are vital members of the healthcare team. They work closely with physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals to provide the best possible care for their patients.
How to Become a Respiratory Therapist
The steps for becoming a respiratory therapist may vary slightly depending on the state in which you practice. However, there are some general steps that all students must take, including the following:
- Have a Natural Desire to Help Others
- Graduate from High School
- Take the Required Prerequisite Courses
- Apply to Your Favorite Schools
- Enroll in the Program
- Complete the Required Coursework
- Complete the Required Clinical Experience
- Graduate with an Associates Degree
- Pass the National Board Exams
- Apply for a License
- Apply for a Job
- Advance Your Career
- Maintain Your Certification
If you want to learn more about how to become a respiratory therapist, then check out our full guide that covers everything you need to know.
What is the Salary of a Respiratory Therapist?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for respiratory therapists was $61,830 in 2021.
However, this number will vary depending on the experience, education, and location where the respiratory therapist chooses to work.
What Will You Study in the Respiratory Therapy Program?
Respiratory therapy programs are designed to prepare students for their future careers. The coursework is broad and covers a variety of topics, including the following:
- Respiratory Anatomy and Physiology
- Patient Assessment
- Therapeutic Procedures
- Mechanical Ventilation
- Neonatal/Pediatric Care
- Pulmonary Function Testing
- Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation
On top of the traditional coursework, students must also participate in clinical rotations. This allows students to work with patients and gain first-hand experience in the field.
What Skills Do Respiratory Therapists Need?
Respiratory therapists need a wide range of skills to be successful in their careers. Some of the most important skills include:
There are a variety of skills that are needed in order to work successfully as a respiratory therapist. Some examples include:
- Physical endurance
- Physical strength
- Gross motor ability
- Fine motor ability
- Emotional stability
- Analytical thinking
- Critical thinking
Each of these skills is important in different aspects of the job. For example, respiratory therapists need to be physically strong and have a lot of endurance to lift and move patients or equipment.
They also need to be emotionally stable to handle the challenges of the job while managing stress and dealing with difficult patients.
Does Respiratory Therapy School Require a Bachelors Degree?
No, you do not need a bachelor’s degree to become a respiratory therapist. In fact, most respiratory therapists only have an associate’s degree from a community college or trade school.
However, to earn your credentials and become a licensed respiratory therapist, you must graduate from an accredited respiratory therapy program.
There are some bachelor’s programs available if you’re interested in pursuing a higher level of education. These programs typically take four years to complete and include more advanced coursework than an associate’s degree program.
So, to revisit the original question: How many years of school is respiratory therapy?
The answer is approximately 2-4 years. However, it all depends on the route you choose to take and how quickly you wish to complete the necessary steps.
Keep in mind that while a career as a respiratory therapist is very rewarding, it can also be very challenging at times. And on top of that, the coursework in the respiratory therapy program is objectively quite difficult.
But if you’re up for the challenge and have a natural desire to help others, then a career as a respiratory therapist may be the perfect fit for you. Thanks for reading, and, as always, breathe easy, my friend.
John Landry, BS, RRT
John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.
- Faarc, Kacmarek Robert PhD Rrt, et al. Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.
- “What Is An RT?” AARC, 12 Sept. 2019, www.aarc.org/careers/what-is-an-rt.
- “The National Board for Respiratory Care.” The National Board for Respiratory Care, www.nbrc.org. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
- “Respiratory Therapists : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 May 2022, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm.