What Is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)?

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or ARDS, is a condition that causes fluid to leak into your lungs, blocking oxygen from getting to your organs.

It is serious, sometimes life-threatening, and can get worse quickly. But it’s generally treatable and most people can recover from it. Fast diagnosis and treatment are important -- your organs need enough oxygen to work right and keep you going.

What Happens When You Have ARDS?

Fluid leaks from small blood vessels and builds up in the tiny air sacs in your lungs. Your lungs are then unable to fill up with enough air.

Because of this, the blood traveling to your lungs can’t pick up the amount of oxygen it needs to carry to the rest of your body. That can lead to organs such as your kidneys or brain not working as they should or shutting down. Doctors aren’t sure why some people get ARDS and others don’t.

What Causes ARDS?

Doctors are still trying to learn more about this condition and why it happens. It’s not always clear what triggers a case.

Most people who get ARDS are already in the hospital for something else. That’s because it’s usually caused by an injury or another illness. Some of the causes of ARDS may 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 that part of your brain that handles breathing.

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

Some of the other possible causes of ARDS include:


ARDS makes it hard to breathe and puts great strain on the lungs. So symptoms include shortness of breath, often severe. Other signs of ARDS include:

While many people are already in a hospital when they get ARDS, you should get medical treatment at once if you have these symptoms or see them in a loved one.


Diagnosis and Tests

No one test can identify a case of ARDS. It’s more of a puzzle that a doctor has to piece together. Other conditions can have similar symptoms.

To make a diagnosis, you doctor will probably begin by asking about your medical history. She’ll then likely do a physical exam and listen to your breathing and your heartbeat. She may also look for:

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

There are various tests your doctor might order to help her reach a diagnosis. Some of them include:

Scans: A chest X-ray is crucial and probably the first test your doctor will order. You might also get a computerized tomography (CT) scan. These can give your doctor an idea of how much fluid is in your lungs and where it is located.

Blood tests: These can be used to check your oxygen level. They can also look for signs of infection or anemia.

Heart tests: These might be ordered to rule out things such as heart failure (when your heart doesn’t pump blood to your body properly).


Treatment aims to get oxygen levels in your blood back up to where they should be, so your organs get what they need. Doctors might start with an air mask and later go to a breathing tube and ventilator (a machine that helps you breathe), depending on exactly what you need.

Other treatments might include:

  • Nutrition and medicine through IV fluids
  • Medicine to prevent bleeding and blood clots
  • Medicine to keep you calm and comfortable

People with ARDS are treated in the intensive care unit at a hospital. People who respond to treatment usually have a full recovery with no long-term harm.


Most people with ARDS can recover. If you’ve recently had it, you can improve your recovery by:

Some might need to be on a ventilator for a while, but most won’t. You might be weak after ARDS and need physical therapy.

Finally, ARDS can be tough emotionally and physically on patients and families. Join a support group if you need help with anxiety, stress, or depression.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on December 21, 2018



Mayo Clinic: “ARDS.”

NIH. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “What Is ARDS?”

American Lung Association: “Learn About ARDS.”

American Thoracic Society: “What is Acute Respiratory Syndrome?”

Cleveland Clinic: “Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).”

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