Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

What is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

Often triggered by a direct or indirect lung injury, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a progressive condition involving the leaking of fluid into the lungs. The life-threatening lung condition can make it difficult for a patient to breathe. ARDS can affect anyone from infants to older adults with preexisting respiratory issues.

What Causes ARDS?

The accumulation of fluid in air sacs (alveoli) that can lead to ARDS can be triggered by a sharp blow to the chest or may result from a condition such as pneumonia that compromises lung functioning. Patients who have had a lung transplant are also susceptible to developing ARDS. Cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can also increase the risk of ARDS.

What are the Symptoms of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

Typically appearing within 24 to 48 hours of the initial injury to the lungs, symptoms are frequently severe enough to require immediate medical attention. Visible signs of ARDS include blue nails and skin from a lack of oxygen.

Symptoms include

  • Difficult breathing
  • Multiple organ failure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Low blood pressure

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome Causes

ARDS is directly caused by fluid from damaged blood vessels in the lungs that leak into the air sacs and stop oxygen from getting to the rest of the body’s organs. The damage to these blood vessels often occurs after a person is already being treated for a serious illness or injury and has been hospitalized for the condition, but not always.

The list of illnesses and injuries that can create the damage necessary for ARDS to occur includes, but is not limited to:

  • Severe cases of pneumonia (typically when every lobe in the lungs has been affected)
  • Aspiration (breathing stomach contents into the lungs)
  • Lung bruising or from trauma like a fall or car accident
  • Inhalation of toxic substances (like smoke or chemical fumes)
  • Sepsis (widespread blood infection)
  • Pancreatitis
  • Blood transfusions (massive, not small)
  • Burns
  • Bad reactions to medication

How is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome Treated?

Diagnosis involves blood tests and chest X-rays. An EKG may be done to rule out a heart issue.


ARDS is treated with medications to reduce fluid levels and inflammation.

Patients often require constant monitoring while on a ventilator to assist with breathing.

ARDS-Related Complications

Patients may experience equally serious complications. Organ failure sometimes occurs after ARDS develops. Some patients also experience a collapsed lung or pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lungs).

Due to the severe nature of ARDS and its related symptoms, recovery is usually difficult. Patients who do survive may have mild lung damage for the remainder of their lives and other quality of life issues due to brain damage sustained from a reduced oxygen supply.

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome Prevention

It is difficult to predict who will be affected by ARDS because it typically does not happen unless someone has been severely injured or become seriously ill.

One way for an individual to prevent Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome is to make themselves aware of what puts them at risk and take steps where they can to decrease their risk before they become sick or injured.

Known risk factors for this condition include:

  • Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Chronic alcohol use
  • Obesity
  • Recent medical treatments like high-risk surgeries and chemotherapy
  • Previously diagnosed lung or heart disease

One of the best ways to prevent Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome is (when physically possible) to seek medical attention before injuries/illnesses require hospitalization. This is a vitally important step in prevention that everyone should take. If the underlying illness or injury is not treated, the results can be fatal.

Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2016
Last Updated:
April 07, 2019
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