Adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a form of lung failure. It is a life-threatening lung condition. ARDS can occur in very ill or severely injured people. It is not a specific disease.
ARDS starts with the tiny blood vessels in the lungs. These vessels leak fluid into the lung sacs. The fluid decreases the ability of the lungs to move oxygen into the body.
ARDS can develop in anyone over the age of one year old.
If you suspect you or someone else has this condition, get medical help immediately.
Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome
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ARDS can be caused by many types of injuries, including:
Direct injury to the lungs:
Chest trauma, such as a heavy blowAspiration of stomach contentsObstructed airwaysHigh attitude diseaseTuberculosisOxygen toxicityRadiationCardiopulmonary bypassBreathing smoke, chemicals, or salt waterBurns
Indirect injury to the lungs:
blood transfusionPneumoniaShockBurnHead trauma
Severe inflammation of the pancreas (
Overdoses of alcohol or certain drugs
(eg, aspirin, cocaine, opioids, phenothiazines, and tricyclic antidepressants)
ARDS may occur within few days of a lung or bone marrow transplantation.
ARDS develops most often in people who are being treated for the conditions listed above. Very few who have these issues will go on to develop ARDS.
Factors that may increase your risk of ARDS include:
Cigarette smokingChronic lung diseaseAge over 65
If you have any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to ARDS. These may be caused by other, more or less serious health conditions. If you or someone else is experiencing any one of them, seek medical help:
Shortness of breathFast, labored breathingBluish skin or fingernail colorRapid pulseFeverChillsMuscle pain or weaknessHeadacheDry Cough
They often develop within 24-48 hours of the injury.
Doctors may suspect ARDS when:
A person suffering from severe infection or injury develops acute, severe breathing problemsA chest x-ray shows fluid in the air sacs of both lungsBlood tests show a dangerously low level of oxygen in the bloodOther conditions that could cause breathing problems have been ruled out
The doctor will ask about symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. People who develop ARDS may be too sick to complain of symptoms. If a patient shows signs of developing ARDS, tests may include the following:
Blood pressure checkBlood tests—to look for oxygen levels, evidence of infection (complete blood count, viral and bacterial cultures) and markers of heart failureChest x-raySwabs from nose and throat for identifying viruses
(heart ultrasound), to rule out
congestive heart failurePulmonary artery catheterization to aid in diagnostic work-upBronchoscopy
to analyze airways—A laboratory examination may indicate presence of certain viruses or cancer cells
is reserved for cases when diagnosis is difficult to establish
Talk with the doctor about the best plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
Treating the underlying cause or injury
Providing support until the lungs heal:
Mechanical ventilation—a machine to help you breathe through a tube placed in the mouth or nose, or through an opening created in the neckMonitoring blood chemistry and fluid levelsOxygen via a face mask or nasal prong
Often, ARDS patients are sedated to tolerate these treatments.
To help reduce your chances of getting ARDS, seek timely treatment for any direct or indirect injury to the lungs.
ARDS Support Center.
Understanding ARDS: acute respiratory distress syndrome and its effect on victims and loved ones. ARDS Support Center brochure. October 3, 2001. ARDS Support Center website. Available at:
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Last reviewed June 2013 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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