How to Become a Respiratory Nurse

Published August 8, 2022 · 6 Min Read

Reviewed by Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC
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The increase in respiratory illnesses in recent years drives the demand for RNs who specialize in these conditions. Check out this guide to learn how to become a respiratory nurse.

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How to Become a Respiratory Nurse
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Because of the increase in respiratory illnesses worldwide, and especially since the onset of COVID-19, job prospects for respiratory nurses continue to rise.

These registered nurses (RNs) work with physicians and other clinicians in various settings, treating an array of breathing conditions and pulmonary diseases.

Continue reading to find out how to become a respiratory nurse and what to expect from this challenging career.

What Is a Respiratory Nurse?

Respiratory nurses, also known as pulmonary nurses, care for patients with acute and chronic respiratory illnesses, including influenza, asthma, pneumonia, and lung cancer.

These licensed RNs have the specialized training to provide critical and emergency care, as well as perform routine tasks like diagnosing symptoms, conducting tests, and helping patients learn how to manage their conditions.

Because of the prevalence of respiratory conditions, employment opportunities for these nurses have spread beyond traditional hospital settings. Becoming a respiratory nurse now means employment in clinics, physicians offices, long-term care facilities, and patients homes.

Steps to Becoming a Respiratory Nurse

The path to becoming a respiratory nurse begins with admission to either a two-year or four-year nursing program. Following completion of their degree, prospective respiratory nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain state licensure. Each state nursing board establishes its own requirements for licensure and additional certification.

Students prepare for a career in respiratory nursing by earning a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) at an accredited nursing school.

Because many employers prefer to hire baccalaureate-trained nurses, RNs with an ADN often decide to continue their education in RN-to-BSN programs. These take between 9-24 months to complete. Some schools offer accelerated BSN programs, designed for people with a bachelors degree in a non-nursing field.

Within a month or two after graduation, prospective RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), required for state licensure. This comprehensive, computerized test, administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, determines whether a nursing graduate has the necessary skills to practice in clinical settings.

Prior to becoming a respiratory nurse, learners should undertake clinical placements and internships, especially in critical care settings. Opportunities to work in respiratory care units enable aspiring respiratory nurses to learn about treatments for specific illnesses. Clinical experience familiarizes nursing students with administering oxygen and operating ventilation equipment.

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Respiratory Nurse Education

Like all RNs, respiratory nurses must graduate from an accredited nursing program and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. While an ADN is the quickest route to a respiratory nursing career, the major professional nursing associations and many employers recommend earning a BSN degree.

Respiratory nurses can boost their career options and earning potential by obtaining specialized certifications and advanced graduate training.

ADN Degree

If you want to work in the field quicker, an ADN prepares you for nursing practice in two years or less. The ADN is the minimum requirement for the NCLEX-RN exam and state licensure, but many employers prefer to hire respiratory nurses with baccalaureate training. ADN program credits can apply toward a future BSN degree.

A high school diploma or equivalent; minimum 2.5 GPA; placement tests in math and writing; prerequisite courses

Minimum of 60 credits including courses in psychology, human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and microbiology; clinical placements

1-2 years

Nursing fundamentals and assessment; patient and family education, critical thinking; administering treatment plans; dispersing medications, patient safety

BSN Degree

A BSN degree has increasingly become the preferred educational credential for all RNs, including respiratory nurses. A traditional BSN takes around four years to complete.

However, RNs who already have ADNs can enroll in RN-to-BSN programs, completing their training in two years or less.

For respiratory nurses who want to obtain certification as advanced practice RNs, a BSN is the prerequisite for admission to graduate nursing programs. Respiratory nurses with BSN or MSN degrees can expect better career opportunities and higher salaries than nurses with ADN degrees.

High school diploma or its equivalent, or an ADN degree; minimum 2.5 GPA; letters of reference

Evidence-based nursing practice; medical-surgical nursing; assessment; pharmacology; medical technology; lifespan development; clinical placements

2-4 years

Care plan creation and administration, patient/family education; population health competencies; leadership and management; mental health nursing; critical thinking and communication

Respiratory Nurse Licensure and Certification

Respiratory nurses need an RN license to practice through their state board of nursing. While each state establishes its own license renewal requirements, RNs often need to renew their license every two years.

Keeping up with advances in the field often requires continuing education or completing a specified number of practice hours. Both count towards license renewal.

RNs can receive professional recognition and demonstrate clinical competencies by obtaining specialized certifications. Board-certified nurses earn on average more than $10,000 annually than those without certifications.

While there is no mandatory certification for respiratory nursing, many of these nurses choose to pursue acute/critical care nursing certifications administered through the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. The AACN offers several certifications for adult, pediatric and neonatal critical care nurses.

Working as a Respiratory Nurse

Before moving into respiratory nursing, RNs need at least two years of clinical experience. Working in critical care units with acutely ill patients teaches aspiring respiratory nurses about intensive medical interventions, life support systems, and operating electronic equipment.

Most respiratory nurses find employment in hospitals, often assigned to emergency or intensive care units. Their duties include diagnosing and monitoring patients, operating respiratory equipment, and helping to educate patients and their families.

Respiratory nurses work in a variety of other inpatient and outpatient settings. Those working in skilled nursing facilities are responsible for monitoring and assessing patients, helping with breathing exercises, and checking ventilators and other medical equipment.

Clinics and physicians offices have added respiratory nurses to their staff in response to rising rates of respiratory illnesses. In these settings, respiratory RNs treat patients with common illnesses like asthma and bronchitis, administer diagnostic tests, and teach patients how to use oxygen tanks and other breathing equipment.

Respiratory nurse salaries correspond to the average earnings for RNs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for all RNs, including respiratory nurses is $77,600.

The BLS projects RN employment to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030, adding over 194,000 new RN positions each year.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Respiratory Nurse


How long does it take to become a respiratory nurse?

A two-year ADN covers the education and training needed to pass the NCLEX-RN and work as a respiratory nurse. However, many hospitals and employers prefer to hire baccalaureate-trained RNs. While a traditional BSN takes four years to complete, RNs with associate degrees may enroll in RN-to-BSN programs, which take two years or less to complete.

Are respiratory nurses in demand?

Because respiratory illnesses rank among the most common medical conditions, RNs with respiratory training can expect continuing job openings. In recent years, COVID-19 and influenza outbreaks have driven demand for respiratory nurses. Public concerns about the dangerous effects of air pollution, occupational hazards, and smoking, also drive demand.

Is becoming a respiratory nurse difficult?

Nursing school is challenging, but no more so than any other rigorous college major. Students interested in becoming respiratory nurses must take a full load of classes each semester that include lectures, labs, and clinical rotations. The key to success lies in good time management skills and efficient study habits.

Do respiratory nurses get paid well?

According to Payscale data from May 2022, RNs with respiratory or pulmonary skills earn an average hourly rate of $28.00. Annual salaries can range from $45,000 to $79,000, depending on education level, type of employer, and years of experience. Respiratory nurses with certifications and MSN degrees or higher can increase their earnings by moving into advanced practice nursing roles. Graduate-trained pulmonary nurse practitioners can earn between $76,000 and $133,000 a year.


Page Last Reviewed: July 13, 2022


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