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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome)

What Are the Symptoms of ARDS?

Symptoms of ARDS come on suddenly, usually within hours or days of the event that initially caused injury to the lung.

ARDS is defined by three main signs and symptoms:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Feeling like you can't get enough air in your lungs
  • Low oxygen levels in your blood, which can lead to organ failure and symptoms such as rapid heart rate, abnormal heart rhythms, confusion, and extreme tiredness

Other symptoms can occur, depending on the event that caused the ARDS. For example, if pneumonia is causing the ARDS, symptoms may also include chest pain and fever.

ARDS is a medical emergency. If you have symptoms of ARDS, call 911. The severe loss of oxygen can rapidly lead to death without prompt treatment.

How Is ARDS Diagnosed?

There is no test to definitively diagnose ARDS. The doctor will perform a physical exam and listen to your heart and lungs using a stethoscope. If you have ARDS, your doctor will hear abnormal breathing sounds, such as wheezing or crackles.

If you have low blood oxygen levels, your skin and lips may be a bluish color. An arterial blood gas test is done to check the oxygen level in your blood. Low blood oxygen levels can be a sign of ARDS.

Other tests that are done to help diagnose ARDS include:

  • Chest X-ray to check for fluid in the air spaces in your lungs
  • Complete blood count and other blood tests to look for signs of infection
  • Sputum culture to see if bacteria or fungi are present in a sample of mucus that you coughed up from your lungs
  • Lung CT scan to look for fluid in the lungs, signs of pneumonia, or other lung problems

Heart tests are also done to rule out heart failure as the cause. Heart failure can cause fluid buildup in the lungs.

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