Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

Conditions Basics

What is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a serious lung problem. 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. It can also put a strain on the heart.

Most people with ARDS will be treated in an intensive care unit (ICU).

Doctors don't always know why someone gets this lung problem. It 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.

What causes it?

ARDS can be caused by many things, including:

  • An infection in the blood (sepsis).
  • 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?

People with ARDS have severe trouble breathing. They feel short of breath and breathe fast.

ARDS can get worse quickly.

How is it diagnosed?

The doctor will diagnose ARDS based on a medical exam and other tests. These tests may include:

  • Imaging tests like a chest X-ray or CT scan to look for fluid buildup or pneumonia.
  • Tests such as an EKG or echocardiogram, to see if a heart problem is causing the symptoms.
  • Blood tests, like an arterial blood gas test, to look at how well the body is getting oxygen.

How is it treated?

ARDS is treated in the ICU. Treatment is focused on:

  • Finding out what caused it and treating the problem.
  • In the ICU, the person will get:
    • Breathing support. This often includes a ventilator, a machine to help the lungs work properly.
    • Nutrition support. It may include feeding through a tube in the stomach or through a tube that is placed in a vein.
    • Heart and oxygen monitoring.
    • Support for the body. This helps the heart, kidneys, and brain have the best chance of recovering.
    • Fluids and medicines delivered through an I.V. (a tube attached to a vein).

It may be scary to see relatives or loved ones surrounded by machines in the ICU. Know that the ICU staff is highly trained to care for people with ARDS. They will do everything they can to help. You can ask them any questions you might have. You can also ask them about counseling and support.

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.


Current as of: August 6, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.