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What Is ARDS?

ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, is a lung condition that leads to low oxygen levels in the blood. ARDS can be life threatening because your body's organs need oxygen-rich blood to work well.

People who develop ARDS often are very ill with another disease or have major injuries. They might already be in the hospital when they develop ARDS.

Overview

To understand ARDS, it helps to understand how the lungs work. When you breathe, air passes through your nose and mouth into your windpipe. The air then travels to your lungs' air sacs. These sacs are called alveoli (al-VEE-uhl-eye).

Small blood vessels called capillaries (KAP-ih-lare-ees) run through the walls of the air sacs. Oxygen passes from the air sacs into the capillaries and then into the bloodstream. Blood carries the oxygen to all parts of the body, including the body's organs.

In ARDS, infections, injuries, or other conditions cause fluid to build up in the air sacs. This prevents the lungs from filling with air and moving enough oxygen into the bloodstream.

As a result, the body's organs (such as the kidneys and brain) don't get the oxygen they need. Without oxygen, the organs may not work well or at all.

People who develop ARDS often are in the hospital for other serious health problems. Rarely, people who aren't hospitalized have health problems that lead to ARDS, such as severe pneumonia.

If you have trouble breathing, call your doctor right away. If you have severe shortness of breath, call 9–1–1.

Outlook

More people are surviving ARDS now than in the past. One likely reason for this is that treatment and care for the condition have improved. Survival rates for ARDS vary depending on age, the underlying cause of ARDS, associated illnesses, and other factors.

Some people who survive recover completely. Others may have lasting damage to their lungs and other health problems.

Researchers continue to look for new and better ways to treat ARDS.

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January 12, 2012