Damage to the lung’s air sacs—called alveoli—causes ARDS. Fluid from tiny blood vessels leaks through the damaged walls of the air sacs and collects, limiting the lungs’ normal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The damage also causes inflammation that leads to the breakdown of surfactant—a liquid that helps keep your air sacs open.
The air sacs may become damaged as a result of an illness, such as a lung infection, or breathing in smoke. Other illnesses or injuries may trigger inflammation that damages the air sacs. To understand ARDS, you may also want to read about how the lungs work.
You may have an increased risk of ARDS because of infection, environmental exposures, lifestyle habits, genetics, other medical conditions or procedures, race, or sex. Risk factors can vary depending on your age, overall health, where you live, and the healthcare setting in which you receive care.
Infections are the most common risk factors for ARDS. These may include:
Being exposed to air pollution for weeks or months can make you more vulnerable to ARDS.
Habits that harm the health of your lungs increase your risk of ARDS. These include:
The genes you inherit may put you at an increased risk for ARDS. These genes play a role in how the lungs respond to damage.
Other medical conditions, injuries, or medical procedures can raise your risk for ARDS. These may include:
The risk of developing ARDS is higher among nonwhite groups.
Among children, boys are at a higher risk of ARDS than girls are.
Learn more about how ARDS in newborns is different from respiratory distress syndrome, a similar breathing condition that also affects newborns.
Both ARDS and respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) are breathing disorders that affect newborns. They have some similar risk factors and signs. However, the causes of the conditions are different. RDS occurs most often in preterm babies whose lungs are not fully developed. In ARDS, the newborn’s lungs are fully developed, but damage from an injury, infection, or inflammation causes the lungs to stop working well.
Visit our Respiratory Distress Syndrome Health Topic to learn more.
Your doctor may screen for ARDS if you have risk factors for ARDS. Getting vaccines to prevent the flu and other infections, avoiding tobacco smoke, limiting the amount of alcohol you drink, and limiting your exposure to pollution can reduce your risk of getting ARDS.
If you have a condition that puts you at risk of ARDS, getting early treatment may help prevent the syndrome. Your doctor and healthcare team may try to prevent ARDS by treating infection or shock, managing your fluid levels carefully, managing the settings of your ventilator, and limiting blood transfusions.
Difficulty breathing is usually the first symptom of ARDS. Other signs and symptoms of ARDS may vary depending on the underlying cause and how severely you are affected. ARDS may take several days to develop, or it can rapidly get worse. Complications may include blood clots, infections, additional lung problems, or organ failure.
Signs and symptoms that you are developing or are at risk for ARDS may include:
If you have trouble breathing, call your doctor right away. If you have severe shortness of breath, call 9-1-1.
If you have ARDS, you can develop other medical problems while in the hospital. Some can be life-threatening. The most common problems are:
Learn more about how some people are more at risk of complications from ARDS.
Some studies indicate that the risk of life-threatening complications may be linked to race or ethnicity. They suggest that African Americans and Hispanics who develop ARDS are less likely than whites to survive. Research also indicates that men with ARDS are more likely than women to develop life-threatening problems.
Your doctor will diagnose ARDS based on your medical history, a physical exam, and test results. ARDS can be difficult to diagnose and is often mistaken for another condition, so it is important to know your symptoms.
To help diagnose ARDS, your doctor may ask you about any medical conditions or recent events that could be considered risk factors. For example, travelling could be a risk factor because of potential exposure to infections that are more common in certain geographic areas. Your doctor may also ask about your symptoms and whether you have a heart problem, such as heart failure, or another condition that can cause signs and symptoms similar to those for ARDS.
Your doctor will examine you for signs of ARDS. This exam may include:
To diagnose ARDS, your doctor may have you undergo some of the following tests and procedures. Different tests may be appropriate for different ages.
Other tests can help find the cause of your ARDS or determine if there is another type of problem. These include:
The goal of treatment for ARDS is to improve oxygen levels and treat the underlying cause. Other treatments aim to prevent complications and make you comfortable.
Oxygen therapy to raise the oxygen levels in your blood is the main treatment for ARDS. Oxygen can be given through tubes resting in your nose, a face mask, or a tube placed in your windpipe.
Depending on the severity of your ARDS, your doctor may suggest a device or machine to support your breathing. These include:
Your doctor may recommend medicine to relieve symptoms, treat the underlying cause, or prevent complications from being in a hospital. These may include:
Your doctor may recommend other treatments, including:
More people are surviving ARDS now than in the past. One likely reason is that treatment and care for the condition have improved. Your age and race may be linked to your recovery. Some people who survive recover completely. Others may have lasting damage to their lungs and other health problems.
Research has led to better care for people who have ARDS, but recovery after leaving the hospital can take many weeks or months, particularly for older adults. Also, the longer you were on a ventilator, the longer it may take for you to recover your strength and return to your familiar routines. Your healthcare team can support your recovery or suggest additional resources.
Return to Treatment to review possible treatment options for ARDS.
To monitor your condition, your doctor may recommend the following tests or procedures:
Your doctor may recommend adopting healthy lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking. Smoking can worsen lung problems. Talk to your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke and other lung irritants, such as harmful fumes. Visit Smoking and Your Heart and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Your Guide to a Healthy Heart. For free help quitting smoking, you may call the National Cancer Institute’s Smoking Quitline at 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848).
Talk about how you feel with your healthcare team. Anxiety, depression, and even PTSD are relatively common among people who have had ARDS. Your healthcare team may recommend that you take steps that include:
Learn about the following ways the NHLBI continues to translate current research into improved health for people who have ARDS. Research on this topic is part of the NHLBI’s broader commitment to advancing lung diseases scientific discovery.
Learn about some of the pioneering research contributions we have made over the years that have improved clinical care.
In support of our mission, we are committed to advancing ARDS research in part through the following ways.
Learn about exciting research areas the NHLBI is exploring about ARDS.
We lead or sponsor many studies relevant to ARDS. See if you or someone you know is eligible to participate in our clinical trials.
After reading our ARDS Health Topic, you may be interested in additional information found in the following resources.