Learn more about ARDS

What Is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)?

Imagine the feeling of not being able to catch your breath.

Acute respiratory distress is an urgent medical condition — and often is life threatening. So, it’s critical to recognize the symptoms and seek help immediately.

For more information about acute respiratory distress syndrome, visit Pulmonary and Respiratory Services at UPMC or call 412-648-6161.

What Is Acute Respiratory Distress?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a serious condition that prevents your lungs from functioning properly, occurs when excess fluid enters your lungs. The fluid prevents oxygen from traveling to your other internal organs, which can lead to organ failure.

People hospitalized for other illnesses or injuries are most likely to develop ARDS. Because it is a life-threatening condition, immediate treatment for ARDS is critical.

Who Is at Risk for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

In the majority of cases, ARDS develops while someone is being treated for another condition. It typically follows an infection, illness, or injury, though this is not always the case.

Common factors that can increase your risk of developing ARDS include:

  • A severe infection, such as sepsis
  • Breathing in toxic chemicals or smoke
  • Pneumonia
  • Drug overdose
  • Severe injuries from an accident

If you are age 65 or older, smoke, or have a history of alcoholism, you are more likely to develop ARDS.

Symptoms of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Because ARDS is life threatening, it is important to call 911 right away if someone shows any of these symptoms:.

  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fatigue and confusion
  • Sweating, often the result of a fever
  • Skin and nails turning blue

Treatment for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

In most cases, people who have contracted ARDS are in the hospital receiving treatment for another condition so treatment can start as soon as symptoms appear.

  • If you experience acute respiratory distress, your doctor will work to increase your oxygen levels, typically through an oxygen mask or a ventilator.
  • Your care team will monitor your fluid levels to support organ function.
  • Oxygen treatment for ARDS must continue until all excess fluid leaves your lungs and you are strong enough to breathe on your own again.

Treatment also may include medicines to manage pain, treat infection, or prevent blood clots from entering your lungs. Some people who have suffered from ARDS also may undergo physical therapy or rehabilitation.