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What Is Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a breathing disorder that affects newborns. RDS rarely occurs in full-term infants. The disorder is more common in premature infants born about 6 weeks or more before their due dates.

RDS is more common in premature infants because their lungs aren't able to make enough surfactant (sur-FAK-tant). Surfactant is a liquid that coats the inside of the lungs. It helps keep them open so that infants can breathe in air once they're born.

Without enough surfactant, the lungs collapse and the infant has to work hard to breathe. He or she might not be able to breathe in enough oxygen to support the body's organs. The lack of oxygen can damage the baby's brain and other organs if proper treatment isn't given.

Most babies who develop RDS show signs of breathing problems and a lack of oxygen at birth or within the first few hours that follow.

Overview

RDS is a common lung disorder in premature infants. In fact, nearly all infants born before 28 weeks of pregnancy develop RDS.

RDS might be an early phase of bronchopulmonary dysplasia (brong-ko-PUL-mo-nar-e dis-PLA-ze-ah), or BPD. This is another breathing disorder that affects premature babies.

RDS usually develops in the first 24 hours after birth. If premature infants still have breathing problems by the time they reach their original due dates, they may be diagnosed with BPD. Some of the life-saving treatments used for RDS may cause BPD.

Some infants who have RDS recover and never get BPD. Infants who do get BPD have lungs that are less developed or more damaged than the infants who recover.

Infants who develop BPD usually have fewer healthy air sacs and tiny blood vessels in their lungs. Both the air sacs and the tiny blood vessels that support them are needed to breathe well.

Outlook

Due to improved treatments and medical advances, most infants who have RDS survive. However, these babies may need extra medical care after going home.

Some babies have complications from RDS or its treatments. Serious complications include chronic (ongoing) breathing problems, such as asthma and BPD; blindness; and brain damage.

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Respiratory Distress Syndrome Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Respiratory Distress Syndrome, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.

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Visit Children and Clinical Studies to hear experts, parents, and children talk about their experiences with clinical research.

 
January 24, 2012 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.

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