How to Become a Respiratory Nurse

5 Min Read Published September 20, 2023
Nurse holding oxygen mask to patient's face in hospital room

Respiratory nurses, also called pulmonary nurses, care for patients suffering from acute and/or chronic respiratory illnesses. Respiratory nurses can focus on a specific age population or care for patients ranging from pediatrics to geriatrics. In this guide, we’ll explain what a Respiratory Nurse does, how to become one, how much they make, and more!

What is a Respiratory Nurse?

Respiratory Nurses are specialized registered nurses (RNs) who care for patients suffering from acute and chronic respiratory illnesses. These illnesses include:

  1. Lung cancer
  2. Pleural effusion
  3. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  4. Emphysema
  5. COVID-19
  6. Black Lung Disease
  7. Interstitial Lung Disease
  8. Pulmonary Embolism
  9. Pulmonary Hypertension
  10. Mesothelioma
  11. Pneumothorax
  12. Pertussis
  13. Influenza
  14. Pneumonia
  15. Asthma
  16. Cystic Fibrosis
  17. Bronchitis
  18. Tuberculosis
  19. Pulmonary edema
  20. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

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What Does a Respiratory Nurse Do?

A Respiratory nurse cares for patients suffering from acute and/or chronic respiratory illnesses. The main goal of a Respiratory nurse is to avoid the worsening of the respiratory illness. Despite focusing on the respiratory system, these nurses also care for the patient as a whole.

Specific duties of a Respiratory nurse include:

  1. Evaluating the effectiveness of medical treatments, specifically in regards to the respiratory system
  2. Educating patients, families, and support individuals regarding current medical diagnosis
  3. Caring for patients with chronic respiratory illness
  4. Performing health histories on patients with respiratory illness
  5. Administering oxygen therapy
  6. Assisting in smoking cessation classes
  7. Administering breathing treatments as ordered
  8. Managing artificial airways such as breathing tubes and tracheostomies
  9. Recording patients’ medical information, assessments, and vital signs
  10. Triaging and stabilizing patients requiring immediate medical attention

Respiratory Nurse vs Respiratory Therapist: What's the Difference?

Respiratory therapists (RTs) and nurses work on patient care teams to treat patients with respiratory illnesses. While some duties may overlap, these positions are quite distinct.

For example, both respiratory therapists and nurses may conduct diagnostic tests on their patients. However, a respiratory therapist would also assist in evaluating those tests and recommending a course of treatment, while a respiratory nurse may administer that treatment. Additionally, respiratory nurses provide general nursing care to their patients, like surgical prep, education, and charting vitals.

Read our guide to the top respiratory therapist programs to learn more about becoming an RT.

Respiratory Nurse Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a registered nurse in 2022 is $81,220 per year or $39.05 per hour, but conditions in your area may vary.

The BLS does not differentiate between different specialties of nursing, but reports an annual median salary of $117,339 for respiratory nurses. reports an average annual salary of $110,996

This number seems significantly higher than most nurse specialties; however, respiratory nurses are in higher demand due to the significance of ongoing respiratory illnesses, such as coronavirus and influenza.

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>> Related: Respiratory Therapist Salary

How Do You Become a Respiratory Nurse?

Step 1: Attend Nursing School

You’ll need to earn either an ADN or a BSN from an accredited nursing program in order to take the first steps to becoming a registered nurse. ADN-prepared nurses can complete an additional step of completing their BSN degree if they wish.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN

Become a registered nurse by passing the NCLEX examination.

Step 3: Gain Experience at the Bedside

While obtaining a position as a respiratory nurse upon completion of nursing school is possible, most will have critical care experience prior to transitioning into the role. Critical care experience is ideal because of the types of illness, mechanical and artificial ventilation, and severity of the disease processes.

Step 4: Earn Certification

While there is no specific certification for Respiratory nurses, most with critical care experience will earn the 

Critical Care (Adult) Registered Nurse (CCRN) certification is offered by The Association of Critical Care Nurses. This is the most common certification for adult critical care nurses. For those Respiratory nurses specializing in pediatrics, there are equivalent certifications for pediatric critical care nurses.

CCRN Eligibility Requirements

  • A current, unencumbered U.S. RN or APRN license
  • Clinical Practice hour requirement:
    • Two-Year Option
      • Practice as an RN or APRN for 1,750 hours in the direct care of acutely/critically ill adult patients during the previous two years, with 875 of those hours accrued in the most recent year preceding the application.
    • Five-Year Option
      • Practice as an RN or APRN for at least five years with a minimum of 2,000 hours in the direct care of acutely/critically ill adult patients, with 144 of those hours accrued in the most recent year preceding application.

Where Do Respiratory Nurses Work?

Respiratory nurses typically work within hospital settings; however, they can also work in the following settings,

  1. Home care agencies
  2. Assisted living facilities
  3. Rehabilitation centers
  4. Outpatient clinics
  5. Long-term care facilities
  6. Infusion centers
  7. Hospice centers
  8. Transplant centers
  9. Military facilities
  10. Academia
  11. Private physician officers
  12. Outpatient surgical centers
  13. Medical supply company
  14. Healthcare insurance company 

What is the Career Outlook for a Respiratory Nurse?

According to the BLS, in 2022, there were 3,172,500 Registered Nurses in the United States. By 2032, there will be a need for an additional 177,400 nurses, which is an expected growth of 6%.

Respiratory nurses are in VERY high demand given the ongoing pandemic and yearly influenza season. These nurses are specifically trained to handle respiratory illness and are able to assess patients for any and all potential changes. 

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What are the Continuing Education Requirements for a Respiratory Nurse?

Generally, in order for an individual to renew their RN license, they will need to fill out an application, complete a specific number of CEU hours, and pay a nominal fee. Each state has specific requirements, and it is important to check with the board of nursing prior to applying for license renewal.

If the RN license is part of a compact nursing license, the CEU requirement will be for the state of permanent residence. Some states require CEUs related to child abuse, narcotics, and/or pain management. 

Respiratory nurses with a CCRN certification will need continuing education for renewal of the certification. These continuing education hours are specific to the certification and can be used for nursing license renewal as well. 

Resources for Respiratory Nurses

  1. American Nurses Association
  2. Respiratory Nursing Society and Interprofessional Collaborative
  3. American Thoracic Society
  4. The Journal of Cardiopulmonary and Acute Care
  5. American Association for Respiratory Care
  6. American Association of Nurse Practitioners
  7. Association of Respiratory Nurse Specialists
  8. Association of Pulmonary Advanced Practice Providers
  9. The National Board for Respiratory Care

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Respiratory Nurse FAQs

  •  How long does it take to become a respiratory nurse?

    • You can become a respiratory nurse immediately upon graduation from an accredited nursing program. Typically, after four years of undergraduate schooling, passing the NCLEX examination, and earning a nursing license, you can apply for respiratory nurse positions. 
  • Who makes more: a respiratory therapist or a respiratory nurse?

  • What is included in a respiratory assessment?

    • A respiratory assessment includes the percussion and auscultation of all lung fields. Patients should be assessed for respiratory rate and color changes such as cyanosis, any work of breathing including grunting, nasal flaring, and retractions, as well as lung expansion and symmetry.  Comprehensive respiratory assessments will also include palpation and inspection and a detailed health history. 
RN $70,000 - $90,000 Associate Bachelors Respiratory Bedside
Kathleen Gaines
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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