Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome



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 (RSV)

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



Symptoms may start slowly or all at once. 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.

Blood tests will be done to look for:

  • Low oxygen levels
  • Infection
  • 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 a person breathe. The doctors may use:

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


    ARDS cannot be prevented.

    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.