Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome
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Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome

(ARDS; Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome; Non-cardiogenic Pulmonary Edema)

En Español (Spanish Version)


Adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a life-threatening lung condition. It is a form of lung failure that can occur in very ill or severely injured people. It is not a specific disease. It starts with swelling of tissue in the lungs and build up of fluid in the tiny air sacs that transfer oxygen to the bloodstream. This leads to dangerously low blood oxygen levels.

ARDS is similar to infant respiratory distress syndrome, but the causes and treatments are different. ARDS can develop in anyone over the age of one year old.

If you suspect you or someone else has this condition, get medical help immediately.

Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome


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ARDS can be caused by many types of injuries, including:

  • Direct injury to the lungs:
    • Chest trauma, such as a heavy blow
    • Aspiration of stomach contents
    • Obstructed airways
    • High attitude disease
    • Tuberculosis
    • Oxygen toxicity
    • Radiation
    • Cardiopulmonary bypass
    • Breathing smoke, chemicals, or salt water
    • Burns
  • Indirect injury to the lungs:
    • Severe infection
    • Massive blood transfusion
    • Pneumonia
    • Shock
    • Burn
    • Head trauma
    • Severe inflammation of the pancreas ( pancreatitis )
    • Overdoses of alcohol or certain drugs (eg, aspirin, cocaine, opioids, phenothiazines, and tricyclic antidepressants)

Lung and bone marrow transplantation–within few days of a lung transplant, the recipient is prone to development of ARDS.

Risk Factors

ARDS usually develops in people who are already in the hospital and are being treated for an injury listed above. However, only a small number of people who have these injuries actually develop ARDS. While no one can predict who will get ARDS, cigarette smokers, those with chronic lung disease, or those who are over age 65 are more at risk of developing ARDS.


If you experience any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to ARDS. These symptoms may be caused by other, more or less serious health conditions. If you or someone else is experiencing any one of them, seek medical help immediately:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast, labored breathing
  • Bluish skin or fingernail color
  • Rapid pulse
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain or weakness
  • Headache
  • Dry Cough

ARDS symptoms usually develop within 24-48 hours of the original injury.


Doctors may suspect ARDS when:

  • A person suffering from severe infection or injury develops acute, severe breathing problems
  • A chest x-ray shows fluid in the air sacs of both lungs
  • Blood tests show a dangerously low level of oxygen in the blood
  • Other conditions that could cause breathing problems have been ruled out

The doctor will ask about symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. People who develop ARDS may, however, be too sick to complain of symptoms. If a patient shows signs of developing ARDS, tests may include the following:

  • Blood pressure check
  • Blood tests for oxygen levels and evidence of infection (complete blood count, viral and bacterial cultures) as well as levels of BNP (brain natriuretic peptide), a marker of heart failure
  • Chest x-ray
  • Swabs from nose and throat for identifying viruses
  • Occasionally, an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound), to rule out congestive heart failure
  • Pulmonary artery catheterization to aid in diagnostic work-up
  • Bronchoscopy to analyze airways—A laboratory examination may indicate presence of certain viruses, cancer cells etc.
  • Open lung biopsy is reserved for cases when diagnosis is difficult ot establish


Talk with the doctor about the best treatment plan. Treatment options include the following:

  • Treating the underlying cause or injury
  • Providing support until the lungs heal:
    • Mechanical ventilation (a breathing machine) through a tube placed in the mouth or nose, or through an opening created in the neck
    • Monitoring blood chemistry and fluid levels
    • Oxygen via a face mask or nasal prong

Often, ARDS patients are sedated to tolerate these treatments.


To help reduce your chances of getting ARDS, seek timely treatment for any direct or indirect injury to the lungs.


American Lung Association

ARDS Clinical Network


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Understanding ARDS: acute respiratory distress syndrome and its effect on victims and loved ones. ARDS Support Center brochure. October 3, 2001. ARDS Support Center website. Available at: . Accessed December 12, 2006.

Understanding ARDS: acute respiratory distress syndrome and its effect on victims and loved ones. ARDS Support Center brochure. October 3, 2001. ARDS Support Center website. Available at: . Accessed August 5, 2005.

Last reviewed January 2008 by David Juan, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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