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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) - Topic Overview

What is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a lung problem. It happens when fluid builds up in the lungs, causing breathing failure and low oxygen levels in the blood. ARDS is life-threatening, because it keeps organs like the brain and kidneys from getting the oxygen they need to work.

ARDS occurs most often in people who are being treated for another serious illness or injury. Most of the time, people who get ARDS are already in the hospital for another reason.

About 40% of people (4 out of 10) who get ARDS don't survive it. That means that 60% of people (6 out of 10) survive.

What causes ARDS?

ARDS can be caused by many things, including:

  • An infection in the blood (sepsis). This is the most common cause of ARDS.1
  • A serious injury to the head or chest, or severe bleeding caused by an injury.
  • An infection in the lungs (pneumonia).
  • Having many blood transfusions.
  • Inhaling vomit.
  • Breathing toxic fumes or smoke.

What are the symptoms?

ARDS can develop quickly. The main symptoms are severe shortness of breath and rapid breathing.

How is ARDS diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose ARDS based on a medical and physical exam and other tests.

An arterial blood gas test may be done to check oxygen levels in the blood.

You may have other tests, including:

  • A chest X-ray, to look for fluid in the lungs.
  • A chest CT scan, which can show problems with the lungs, such as pneumonia or a lung tumor.

How is it treated?

ARDS is treated in the intensive care unit. Treatment focuses on getting oxygen to the lungs and other organs, and then treating the cause of ARDS.

Oxygen therapy may be given through a mask that fits over the mouth. If you still have trouble breathing, your doctor may insert a breathing tube that is connected to a machine (ventilator). The breathing tube will help you breathe until you can breathe on your own.

Your doctor may also give you medicines, such as antibiotics, to treat an infection if it is causing ARDS. You may also be given fluids through an IV to help you recover.

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