Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) Also known as Acute Lung Injury, ARDS, Noncardiac Pulmonary Edema

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a serious lung condition that causes low blood oxygen. People who develop ARDS are usually ill due to another disease or a major injury. In ARDS, fluid builds up inside the tiny air sacs of the lungs, and surfactant breaks down. Surfactant is a foamy substance that keeps the lungs fully expanded so that a person can breathe. These changes prevent the lungs from filling properly with air and moving enough oxygen into the bloodstream and throughout the body. The lung tissue may scar and become stiff.

ARDS may develop over a few days, or it can get worse very quickly. The first symptom of ARDS is usually shortness of breath. Other signs and symptoms of ARDS are low blood oxygen, rapid breathing, and clicking, bubbling, or rattling sounds in the lungs when breathing.

ARDS can develop at any age. To diagnose ARDS, your doctor or your child’s doctor will do a physical exam, review the patient’s medical history, measure blood oxygen levels, and order a chest X-ray. Supplying oxygen is the main treatment for ARDS. Other treatments help make you more comfortable or aim to eliminate the cause of ARDS. Treatments for ARDS may help prevent serious or life-threatening complications, including organ damage or organ failure.

Explore this Health Topic to learn more about ARDS, our role in research and clinical trials to improve health, and where to find more information.

Signs, Symptoms, and Complications - Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Difficulty breathing is usually the first symptom of ARDS. Other signs and symptoms of ARDS may vary depending on the underlying cause and how severely you are affected. ARDS may take several days to develop, or it can rapidly get worse. Complications may include blood clots, infections, additional lung problems, or organ failure.
Signs and symptoms that you are developing or are at risk for ARDS may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast breathing, or taking lots of rapid, shallow breaths
  • Fast heart rate
  • Coughing that produces phlegm
  • Blue fingernails or blue tone to the skin or lips
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Crackling sound in the lungs
  • Chest pain, especially when trying to breathe deeply
  • Low blood pressure
  • Confusion
If you have trouble breathing, call your doctor right away.
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