Respiratory Nurse Career Overview

November 11, 2021 , Modified on April 27, 2022 · 5 Min Read

Reviewed by Anna-Lise Krippaehne

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Respiratory nurses are in high demand. Learn how to become a respiratory nurse and about typical respiratory nurse salary expectations.

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Respiratory Nurse Career Overview
Credit: Maskot | Maskot | Getty Images

Respiratory registered nurses (RNs) are in high demand because of the vital role they play in healthcare. They help patients who are having trouble breathing because of illness or injuries. Respiratory nurses perform tests, provide medication and manage respiratory equipment, and carry out treatment plans.

Find out more about a career as a respiratory nurse in this guide.

What Does Respiratory Nurse Do?

Respiratory nurses help patients who are experiencing breathing problems. Their responsibilities include:

ADN required
RN license

Typical Duties

  • Asking patients about symptoms and communicating with physicians or nurse practitioners (patient intake)
  • Performing diagnostic tests, such as measuring lung capacity with specialized equipment
  • Updating health records
  • Assisting patients to breathe by performing respiratory procedures, such as clearing mucus from lungs or airways
  • Inserting breathing tubes and monitoring ventilators
  • Educating patients on breathing exercises or giving advice on how to quit smoking
  • Conducting home visits for patients who use ventilators or other breathing equipment

Career Traits

  • Collaboration
  • Communication with colleagues and patients
  • Problem-solving
  • Attention to detail
black male nurse looking directly at camera with two other nurses talking together in the background

Credit: Maskot | Maskot | Getty Images Plus

Where Do Respiratory Nurses Work?

While the BLS does not provide data on respiratory nurses specifically, they do have information on RNs. Most (61%) work in hospitals, while 18% work in ambulatory services. Six percent are employed in residential care facilities.

Respiratory nurses' duties may vary according to setting.

Respiratory nurses monitor patients in emergency departments, neonatal intensive care units, recovery, and other inpatient or outpatient settings. They educate patients and family and help ensure that respiratory equipment is working correctly.

Respiratory RNs check ventilators and ensure they function correctly, assist patients with breathing exercises, and perform standard respiratory tests.

Respiratory RNs educate patients who have asthma or other respiratory conditions, perform diagnostic tests, update health records, and teach patients how to use equipment such as continuous positive airway pressure machines or oxygen tanks.

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Why Become a Respiratory Nurse?

Respiratory nurses are in high demand, especially during the COVID pandemic. Most find the work very rewarding, but there are some downsides.


Advantages to Becoming a Respiratory Nurse


Being a respiratory nurse can be fulfilling work that makes a significant difference in patients' lives. You can see immediate results from your efforts as a patient's breathing improves. There's very high demand for respiratory nurses. While you can enter the field with an associate degree, you can continue your education and your earnings/career potential with more education.

Disadvantages to Becoming a Respiratory Nurse


The work can be physically demanding, especially if you need to deal with equipment. During COVID, flu season, or after wildfires or chemical leaks, demand can be overwhelming. Respiratory nurses must be able to manage stress. Hospital work typically requires weekend and night shifts. Respiratory nurses are often present during patient deterioration and deaths.

How to Become a Respiratory Nurse

Earn a registered nursing degree(s).
You must earn an associate degree or bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree to become an RN. The associate degree program takes two years, while a BSN takes four years. Many employers require or strongly prefer a BSN.
Pass the National Council Licensure Examination to receive RN licensure.
The NCLEX-RN is a multi-hour, multiple-choice examination that covers nursing practice and skills, communication, the healthcare system, and legal/ethical topics.
Earn a BSN Degree.
If you don’t have a BSN, you can enter an RN-to-BSN program, which will build on your associate degree.
Pass a certification exam (if necessary).
Unlike respiratory therapists (RTs), there is no standardized certification for respiratory nurses. However, you can earn critical care nurse certification or certified pulmonary function technology standing. Most employers require respiratory nurses to know cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Sometimes advanced cardiovascular life support certification is also required.

How Much Do Respiratory Nurses Make?

The median salary for RNs, according to the BLS, is $75,330. Respiratory nurses can make more. BLS projects 9% growth for nurses (not just respiratory nurses) over the same period. During COVID, respiratory nurses can generally expect good signing bonuses.

Top-Paying States
States Average Salary Total Number of RNs
California $120,560 307,060
Hawaii $104,830 11,260
Massachusetts $96,250 84,030
Oregon $96,230 6,240
Alaska $95,270 6,430

Source: BLS

Top-Paying Metropolitan Areas for RNs
Top-Paying Metropolitan Areas Average Salary Total Number of RNs
San Francisco — Oakland — Hayward, CA $149,200 40,600
San Jose — Sunnyvale — Santa Clara, CA $146,870 17,750
Vallejo — Fairfield, CA $142,140 3,690
Sacramento-Roseville-Arden — Arcade, CA $134,350 21,920
Salinas, CA $132,160 2,910

Source: BLS

Top-Paying Industries for RNs
Industry Average Salary
Business Support Services $106,670
Federal Executive Branch $96,230
Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing $92,110
Other Investment Pools and Funds $91,990
Office Administrative Services $89,490

Source: BLS

Respiratory Nursing: FAQ


Respiratory therapists and respiratory nurses work within hospital settings and other medical facilities to assist patients that are undergoing treatment for respiratory problems. They may also help in the diagnosis of patients who are having breathing problems, but who have no current respiratory diagnosis or treatment under way. Asthma, emphysema, and other chronic illnesses may be treated, along with symptoms displayed by newborns with under-developed lungs, or elderly patients who have other forms of lung disease or weakness in their lungs. Respiratory nurses perform emergency procedures on patients who have suffered from heart attacks or shock. They may also treat patients who are victims of drowning.

What does a respiratory nurse do?

Respiratory nurses help patients who are having breathing problems due to illness, injuries, or chemical or smoke inhalation. They monitor patients' conditions, adjust equipment as needed, and educate patients on breathing exercises and how to use respiratory equipment. They work closely with physicians and other clinicians.

What skills are needed to be a respiratory nurse?

Respiratory nurses must, like all nurses, understand anatomy and how the respiratory system works. They must understand how to conduct breathing tests, monitor patients for breathing difficulties, and use medical equipment such as ventilators, humidifiers, nebulizers, and oxygen delivery systems. They should communicate well with patients and loved ones.

Who makes more RNs or respiratory therapists?

RNs make a median of $75,330, according to the BLS, compared to respiratory therapists who make a median of $62,810. However, location and experience make a difference, as do degrees. An experienced respiratory therapist with a bachelor's or advanced degree can make more than an RN with an associate degree.

Can an RN become a respiratory therapist?

RNs can return to school to earn a respiratory therapy degree, but because RTs generally earn less and have limited career choices, it's rare. Respiratory therapists are more likely to become RNs, so some RN programs have RT-to-RN bridge programs.

Resources for Respiratory Nurse

The RNSIC broadened its scope to include all healthcare respiratory professionals. It offers publications, issues awards for professional achievement, and holds an annual conference. Students, retirees, and corporations are eligible for membership. The ATS Nursing Assembly is part of the larger ATS, which used to be part of the American Lung Association. It offers professional education, conducts research, issues publications, and provides networking opportunities. It also connects professionals across disciplines such as pulmonology, critical care, sleep medicine, infectious disease, pediatrics, allergy/immunology, and many more areas. The AARC provides medical education to respiratory practitioners in all disciplines, including respiratory nurses, physicians, and respiratory therapists. Respiratory nurses are eligible for associate membership. It accredits respiratory therapy programs, offers a job board (mostly for respiratory therapists), issues publications, and holds a conference.

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Page last reviewed March 14, 2022

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