Living with Chronic Pain

What Is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)?


Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a life-threatening condition that involves the build up of fluid in the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs. This fluid prevents the lungs from fully expanding and receiving enough air, which results in a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. This deprives the body’s organs of oxygen.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome is typically initiated by another illness or injury, such as sepsis, pneumonia, an injury to the lungs, or trauma to the portion of the brain that controls breathing. ARDS is also a potential complication of COVID-19.

Symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome

The symptoms of ARDS include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Confusion
  • Excessive sweating
  • Extreme fatigue

Symptoms typically develop within 24 to 48 hours of the original injury or illness and may rapidly worsen.

Treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome

Supportive care with supplemental oxygen is the main treatment for ARDS. For mild cases, supplemental oxygen can be delivered through a nasal cannula or face mask. For more severe cases, intubation (a tube placed in the mouth and through the trachea to provide airflow) and mechanical ventilation (a ventilator to push air into the lungs) is required. Individuals on a ventilator are typically sedated to help them tolerate both the tube and the ventilation.

In addition to supportive care with supplemental oxygen, a variety of medications and treatments may be used to manage ARDS, including, but not limited to, the following: Intravenous fluids, medications to treat infection, pain medications, blood thinners, heart medications, nutritional replacement therapy, and suctioning.

Approximately one-third of people who develop ARDS die as a result. Some survivors regain normal lung function; whereas, others have permanent lung damage as a result of the illness or the treatment with a mechanical ventilator. Memory loss or other neurological complications may also occur due to a lack of oxygen to the brain (hypoxia).

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