Loading icon
Press enter or spacebar to select a desired language.
Health Information Center

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

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


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_1http://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=76767676exh48461.jpgexh48461.jpgNULLjpgexh48461.jpgNULL\\hgfiler01a\intellect\images\exh48461.jpgNULL90NULL2008-12-10272400Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


ARDS happens when small blood vessels leak fluid into the small air sacs of the lungs. The fluid in the sacs blocks oxygen from passing into the body. The leaking may be caused by:
  • Infection
  • Injury
  • Swelling

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:

Risk Factors

The health problems above raise the risk of ARDS.

Other things that may raise the risk are:


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 symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.

Blood tests will be done to look for:

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


The underlying cause will be treated.

The goal of treatment is to help a person breathe. This may be done with:

  • 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.





  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/acute-respiratory-distress-syndrome-ards.
  • Meyer, N.J., Gattinoni, L., et al. Acute respiratory distress syndrome. Lancet, 2021; 398 (10300): 622-637.
  • What is acute respiratory distress syndrome? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/ards.


  • James P. Cornell, MD
Last Updated:

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.