Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

Topic Overview

What is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a lung problem. It happens when fluid builds up in the lungs, causing breathing failure and low oxygen levels in the blood. ARDS is life-threatening, because it keeps organs like the brain and kidneys from getting the oxygen they need to work.

ARDS occurs most often in people who are being treated for another serious illness or injury. Most of the time, people who get ARDS are already in the hospital for another reason.

This is a very serious condition that causes death in many people. About two-thirds of people who develop ARDS survive.

What causes ARDS?

ARDS can be caused by many things, including:

  • An infection in the blood (sepsis). This is the most common cause of ARDS.footnote 1
  • A serious injury to the head or chest, or severe bleeding caused by an injury.
  • An infection in the lungs (pneumonia).
  • Having many blood transfusions.
  • Inhaling vomit.
  • Breathing toxic fumes or smoke.

What are the symptoms?

ARDS can develop quickly. The main symptoms are severe shortness of breath and rapid breathing.

How is ARDS diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose ARDS based on a medical and physical examination and other tests.

An arterial blood gas test may be done to check oxygen levels in the blood.

You may have other tests, including:

  • A chest X-ray, to look for fluid in the lungs.
  • A chest CT scan, which can show problems with the lungs, such as pneumonia or a lung tumour.

How is it treated?

ARDS is treated in the intensive care unit. Treatment focuses on getting oxygen to the lungs and other organs, and then treating the cause of ARDS.

Oxygen therapy may be given through a mask that fits over the mouth. If you still have trouble breathing, your doctor may insert a breathing tube that is connected to a machine (ventilator). The breathing tube will help you breathe until you can breathe on your own.

Your doctor may also give you medicines, such as antibiotics, to treat an infection if it is causing ARDS. You may also be given fluids through an IV to help you recover.

What is life like after ARDS?

Among people who survive ARDS, some recover completely. But it can take a few years to do so.

Others have long-term health problems, such as:

  • Breathing problems, like shortness of breath. For some people, this goes away within 6 months. But for others, breathing problems don't go away.
  • Trouble doing day-to-day activities because of weakness and fatigue.
  • Depression.
  • Problems focusing on tasks and trouble with memory.

ARDS is a serious condition, and getting better is hard work. Your life may be changed in important ways. Here are some things that might help:

  • Try pulmonary rehabilitation. It can help you get stronger and can improve your quality of life.
  • Remember that you don't have to do it all yourself. Ask your family and friends for help with everyday tasks.
  • Join a patient support group where you can talk about your feelings in a supportive environment. Ask your doctor about groups in your area.



  1. Lee W, Slutsky A (2010). Acute respiratory distress syndrome. In JF Murray, JA Nadel, eds., Textbook of Respiratory Medicine, 5th ed, vol. 2, pp. 2104–2129. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.


Current as of: June 9, 2019

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Brian O'Brien, MD, FRCPC - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
R. Steven Tharratt, MD, FACP, FCCP - Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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