Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on March 08, 2024
4 min read

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a condition that causes fluid to build up in your lungs so oxygen can’t get to your organs.

Fluid leaks from small blood vessels and collects in tiny air sacs in your lungs so they can’t fill with enough air. Because of this, your blood can’t pick up the oxygen it needs to carry to the rest of your body. Organs such as your kidneys or brain might not work the way they should or might shut down.

ARDS is sometimes life-threatening and can get worse quickly. But it’s generally treatable, and most people recover. Fast diagnosis and treatment are important.

ARDS is usually triggered by another health problem, so most people who have it are already in the hospital for something else. Causes of ARDS include:

Sepsis. This is when you get an infection in your bloodstream and your immune system goes into overdrive, causing inflammation, small blood clots, and bleeding.

Accidents. Injuries from a car wreck or a fall can damage your lungs or the part of your brain that controls breathing.

Breathing in harmful things. Dense smoke or chemical fumes can trigger ARDS.

Other possible causes of ARDS include:

Doctors don’t know why some people get ARDS and others don’t. Risk factors include:


ARDS puts a lot of strain on your lungs. Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Low blood pressure
  • Unusually fast breathing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Chest pain, especially when breathing deeply
  • Confusion and exhaustion
  • Blue-tinted lips or nails from lack of oxygen in your blood
  • Dizziness


No single test can identify ARDS. It’s more of a puzzle that your doctor pieces together. They’ll want to rule out conditions that can have similar symptoms.

Your doctor will ask about your medical history, do a physical exam, and listen to your breathing and your heartbeat. They may also look for:

  • Signs of extra fluid in your body
  • Bluish color on your lips or skin

Tests to help with diagnosis include:

Imaging tests. A chest X-ray is crucial and probably the first test your doctor will order. You might also have a CT scan. These can give your doctor an idea of how much fluid is in your lungs and where it is.

Blood tests. These check your oxygen level. They can also look for signs of infection or anemia, a lack of red blood cells.

Heart tests. These can rule out conditions such as heart failure (when your heart doesn’t pump blood through your body the way it should).

Treatment aims to get the oxygen levels in your blood up to where they should be, so your organs get what they need. In some cases, your doctor might give you an air mask and later go to a breathing tube and ventilator (a machine that helps you breathe).

Your doctor will also treat other conditions that might be causing ARDS.

Treatments include:

  • Nutrition and medicine through fluids injected into your blood
  • Medication to prevent bleeding and blood clots
  • Medication to keep you calm and comfortable

Most ARDS treatment is done in a hospital’s intensive care unit. Many people have a full recovery with no long-term problems.

The condition or its treatment can lead to other problems, including:

  • Collapse of part of your lung because it can’t inflate the way it should (atelectasis) or because of air between your lung and your chest wall (pneumothorax)
  • Organ damage or failure
  • Confusion
  • High blood pressure in the artery that goes from your heart to your lungs (pulmonary hypertension)
  • Scarred lung tissue (pulmonary fibrosis)
  • Blood clots
  • Infection


If you’ve recently had ARDS, improve your recovery by:

You might need to be on a ventilator for a while. ARDS can leave you weak, so you may go to physical therapy to get stronger.

Staying current with vaccines - for COVID, RSV, and pneumonia - and getting a flu shot every year - lowers your risk of getting ARDS.  

ARDS can be emotionally and physically tough on patients and families. A support group may help with anxiety, stress, or depression.