Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome


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 1 year.

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 blow
  • Aspiration of stomach contents
  • Obstructed airways
  • High attitude disease
  • Tuberculosis
  • Oxygen toxicity
  • Radiation
  • Cardiopulmonary bypass
  • Breathing smoke, chemicals, or salt water
  • Burns

Indirect injury to the lungs:

  • Severe infection
  • Massive blood transfusion
  • Pneumonia
  • Shock
  • Burn
  • Head trauma
  • Severe inflammation of the pancreas—pancreatitis
  • Overdoses of alcohol or certain drugs, such as aspirin, cocaine, opioids, phenothiazines, and tricyclic antidepressants

ARDS may occur within few days of a lung or bone marrow transplantation.

Risk Factors

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.

Other factors that may increase your chance of ARDS include:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Age over 65 years


ARDS may cause:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast, labored breathing
  • Bluish skin or fingernail color
  • Rapid pulse
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain or weakness
  • Headache
  • Dry Cough

They often develop within 24-48 hours of the injury. If you or someone else is experiencing any symptoms, seek medical help


Doctors may suspect ARDS when:

  • A person suffering from severe infection or injury develops acute, severe breathing problems
  • A chest x-ray shows fluid in the air sacs of both lungs
  • Blood tests show a dangerously low level of oxygen in the blood
  • Other 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. Tests may include:

  • Blood pressure check
  • Blood tests—to look for oxygen levels, evidence of infection, and markers of heart failure
  • Chest x-ray
  • Swabs from nose and throat for identifying viruses
  • Occasionally, an echocardiogram, to rule out heart failure
  • Pulmonary artery catheterization to aid in diagnostic work-up
  • Bronchoscopy to analyze airways—a laboratory examination may indicate presence of certain viruses or cancer cells
  • Open lung biopsy is reserved for cases when diagnosis is difficult to establish


If you are able, 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 neck
    • Monitoring blood chemistry and fluid levels
    • Oxygen via a face mask or nasal prong

Often, ARDS patients are sedated to tolerate these treatments.


To help reduce your chance of getting ARDS, seek timely treatment for any direct or indirect injury to the lungs.


Please note, not all procedures included in this resource library are available at Allegiance Health or performed by Allegiance Health physicians.

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