Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a life-threatening lung injury caused by sepsis, pneumonia, the coronavirus (COVID-19) and other conditions. ARDS tends to develop within few hours to few days of the event that caused it, and can worsen rapidly. ARDS patients may have to be put in an intensive care unit (ICU) and on a ventilator to help them breathe.
Acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, is an inflammatory lung injury that happens when fluids build up in small air sacs (called alveoli) in the lungs. ARDS prevents the lungs from filling up with air and causes dangerously low oxygen levels in the blood (hypoxemia).
This condition prevents other organs such as brain, heart, kidneys and stomach from getting the oxygen they need to function. ARDS is dangerous and can lead to a number of serious and life-threatening problems.
ARDS typically happens in hospital settings while the patient is being treated for infection or trauma. If you’re not hospitalized and experience symptoms of ARDS, get medical attention immediately.
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ARDS is caused when fluids leak from small lung vessels into lung air sacs (alveoli). When the protective membrane between blood vessels and air sacs is compromised, levels of oxygen in the blood decrease.
Causes of ARDS include:
Symptoms of ARDS depend on the cause and severity of the case, as well as pre-existing lung or heart conditions. Symptoms include:
If ARDS is caused by severe infection (sepsis), symptoms of sepsis may also be present (fever, low blood pressure).
ARDS tends to develop within a few hours to a few days of the event that caused it. ARDS can worsen rapidly.
When symptoms of ARDS occur, a combinations of tests may be done:
Sometimes, symptoms and signs of ARDS may require additional tests to diagnose other causes that are similar to ARDS.
ARDS is usually treated in the intensive care unit (ICU) along with treatment of the underlying cause.
Mechanical ventilation (a ventilator) is often used in caring for patients with ARDS. For milder cases of ARDS, oxygen may be given through a fitted face mask or a cannula fitted over the nose.
Steps to minimize complications (see below) from ARDS are commonly used. These include:
No direct drug therapy has been shown to improve survival in ARDS, but researchers continue to work on finding treatment.
Complications and problems from ARDS may develop while a patient is in the hospital or after discharge.
ARDS can be life-threatening and deadly. But improved care and ventilator treatments — including prone ventilation with patients lying face down to improve oxygen flow — are now helping more people survive and reduce risk of complications from ARDS.
Recovery from ARDS may take a long time. Most patients can be removed from the ventilator and breathe freely. Some recover completely, but others may develop chronic lung problems that require care by lung doctors (pulmonologists). Some patients may develop post-intensive care syndrome (PICS) and can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, physical weakness, and anxiety and depression.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Time in the ICU can be traumatic and hard. People recovering from ARDS may not be able to go back to everyday life and work quickly, and need support. Getting professional help and advice is important along the road to recovery from ARDS. Ask your healthcare team about any post intensive care recovery programs in your area and online support groups that are available.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/20/2020.
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