What is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, is a serious inflammatory lung injury that causes dangerously low oxygen levels in the blood, called hypoxemia. ARDS can lead to a number of serious problems. It is life-threatening, so immediate attention is necessary.

What causes acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?

Many causes of ARDS have been identified. The most common cause is sepsis, which is a blood infection that occurs mostly in the hospital. Alcohol abuse seems to increase the risk of ARDS from sepsis. Aspiration of stomach contents into the lungs is a risk factor in hospitalized patients who have a tube placed into their lungs to manage their airways, known as intubation. Massive blood transfusion and acute pancreatitis can increase the risk of developing ARDS.

Outside of the hospital, community-acquired pneumonia is the most common cause of ARDS. Severe trauma and tissue injury can also cause ARDS.

People who overdose on drugs such as cocaine, opioids, and tricyclic antidepressants are in danger of getting ARDS.

What are the symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?

Symptoms of ARDS include:

These symptoms are a result of fluids collecting within the lungs’ alveoli, the tiny sacs in the lungs that exchange gases. Cough and chest pain may also be present.

If the ARDS is caused by an infection, such as sepsis, the symptoms of infection will also be present (fever, low blood pressure).

How quickly can acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) develop?

ARDS tends to develop within 48 hours of the event that caused it. It can worsen rapidly.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/03/2013.


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