Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome



Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a form of severe lung damage. It happens in people who are very ill or hurt. It can be deadly.

exh48461 96472 1
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


ARDS is caused by small blood vessels that leak fluid into the small air sacs of the lungs. The fluid in the sacs blocks oxygen from passing into the body.

Direct injuries that may lead to ARDS are:

  • Pneumonia
  • Sepsis of the lungs
  • Breathing regurgitated stomach matter
  • A bruise of the lung
  • Near-drowning
  • Breathing smoke or certain chemicals
  • Respiratory syncytial virus

Indirect injuries that may lead to ARDS are:

  • Sepsis
  • Severe injury, such as a heavy blow to the chest
  • Burn
  • Swelling of the pancreas
  • Drug overdose
  • A large blood transfusion

Risk Factors

The health problems above raise the risk of ARDS.

Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Smoking
  • Lung disease
  • Alcohol use disorder



Signs often start within 24 to 48 hours. They will also worsen with time. It may happen slowly or quickly.

A person may have:

  • Problems breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Signs of infection, such as fever or chills
  • Bluish skin or fingernail color
  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. Tests will be done if you are not able to communicate.

Blood tests will be done to look for low oxygen levels, infection, and signs of heart failure.

Pictures will be taken of the chest. This can be done with:

  • Chest x-ray
  • Echocardiography
  • CT scan of chest



The underlying cause will be treated.

The goal of treatment is to help promote breathing. Choices are:

  • Mechanical ventilation—a machine will move air in and out of the lungs
  • Non-invasive mask mechanical ventilation—a mask will deliver air from a ventilator to the lungs
  • Oxygen therapy—a mask or tube will deliver oxygen through the nose
  • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECM)—advanced breathing and heart support (not as common)


There are no known guidelines to prevent this problem.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.

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


American Lung Association 

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute 


Health Canada 

The Lung Association 


Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed October 29, 2020.

Explore ARDS. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Accessed October 29, 2020.

Sweeney RM, McAuley DF. Acute respiratory distress syndrome. Lancet. 2016 Nov 12;388(10058):2416-2430.