What is a Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists, or RTs, are medical professionals who care for patients that are having trouble breathing. These troubles may be from a chronic respiratory disease, such as asthma or emphysema, or from underdeveloped or diseased lungs. They also aid in emergency care, particularly among patients who suffer heart attacks or who have drowned. Their patients range from premature infants to the elderly. To find out more on job duties, please visit our respiratory therapist job description page.

Work Environment

Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals, working in clean and sterile environments. Their work can be difficult or draining, however, especially in emergency situations where a patient may be near death.

Given the need for respiratory therapists among the elderly, they also often find employment in nursing care facilities. These work environments will be similarly clean and sterile, though there will be an increased requirement for sociability.

Some respiratory therapists have a traveling position, providing care in patients’ homes. In these cases, the environment is highly changeable, and dependent on the patient. Some areas will be clean and well-kept, others less so.

Work Schedule

Respiratory therapists generally work full time, with a 36 or 40 hour work week. In the latter case, one will work a standard five days per week at eight hours per day, or four days per week at 10 hours per day. In the former case, however, one may end up working three days at 12 hours per day, which can make for a tiring work life. 

Mean Annual Respiratory Therapist Salary

A respiratory therapist makes an average salary of $57,200. Lowest 10% of this occupation makes less than $40,980 and the top 10% makes over $75,430.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for respiratory therapists is quite promising, with an expected 19 percent job growth between 2012 and 2022. This is faster than the average for all occupations, and is due in part to an aging population; with a growing elderly and middle-aged population, there will be a resultant growth in the incidence of respiratory conditions, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and pneumonia. These disorders can result in permanent lung damage and restricted function, meaning that demand for respiratory therapists will remain high.

Salary Analysis 

The average salary of a respiratory therapist is $57,200. This wage, however, is affected by many factors, and though the differences created are not as large as some other occupations, they are significant enough to span a $40,980 to $75,430 range.

The main factors are geographic location and industry. Education and specialization have only a small affect, while experience can offer further benefits.

Education and Specialization 

The requirements for becoming a respiratory therapist vary by state, however all states do require one to acquire a license (Alaska is the only exception to this, having no such licensing requirements).

Most respiratory therapists have an associate’s degree, with some holding a bachelor’s degree. The higher the education level, the better the chances are of being offered a position with a marginally higher salary.

There are several areas of specialization for respiratory therapists, including neo-natal, pediatric, and critical care. Specializations will make minor differences in wages, however this will depend more on the state and the availability of RTs with that specialization.

Experience and Position 

Experience is an important consideration for all positions, including respiratory therapists. More experience and time worked in the position will make one more knowledgeable, and will bring appropriate wage increases.

Position is an interesting case; while employment in a hospital offers few recourses for position improvement (other than to head a team of respiratory therapists), with advanced education one can work in a college or university training new RTs, or become a manager of a home care company. These will bring appropriate salary increases.


The industry worked bares careful scrutiny. The industry chosen can mean the difference between a salary around $50,000, below the average, to earning upwards of $68,120, such as in a College, University, or professional school.

Working in an outpatient care center brings the second highest average salary, at $67,720. One can also do well as a manager of a company or enterprise, and earn approximately $65,930. Working as a home health care service provider will bring one close to the overall average, with a salary of $59,730.


The location worked offers a wide variety of wage differences, from around $40,000 (or, in Puerto Rico, $21,540), to more than $70,000. California has the highest average wages, at $73,320. This is followed by Nevada and Connecticut, at $69,540, and $67,890, respectively.

At the metropolitan level, one can see even greater improvement. With the top five metropolitan areas located in California, the highest is in San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, at $88,520.

Respiratory Therapist Salary State By State