Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome Treatment

The goal of treatment for ARDS is to improve oxygen levels and treat the underlying cause. Oxygen therapy is the main treatment for ARDS. Other treatments aim to prevent complications and make you comfortable.

Oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy is a treatment that delivers oxygen for you to breathe. You can receive oxygen therapy from tubes resting in your nose, a face mask, or a tube placed in your trachea (windpipe). You may need oxygen therapy if you have a condition that causes your blood oxygen levels to be too low.

Oxygen therapy can be given for a short or long period of time in the hospital, in another medical setting, or at home. Oxygen poses a fire risk, so you should never smoke or use flammable materials when using oxygen. You may experience side effects from this treatment, such as a dry or bloody nose, tiredness, and morning headaches. Oxygen therapy is generally safe.

Other breathing support

Depending on how serious your symptoms are, your doctor may suggest a device or machine to support your breathing:

  • Noninvasive ventilation, such as use of bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, which are electronic breathing devices that help keep your airways open by blowing air through a face mask.
  • A ventilator may help restore your blood oxygen levels. Some people transition from a ventilator to portable oxygen therapy. Risks from being on a ventilator include pneumonia and pneumothorax (collapsed lung).


Your doctor may recommend medicines to relieve symptoms, treat the underlying cause, or prevent complications from being in a hospital:

  • Acid-reducing medicines prevent stress ulcers, which can cause bleeding in the intestines.
  • Antibiotics treat or prevent infections. If you are on a ventilator, your healthcare team may do tests, such as lung fluid lab tests or CT scans, to look for signs of new infection.
  • Blood thinners stop blood clots from forming or growing larger. Heparin is a common blood thinner for adults.
  • Muscle relaxants help prevent coughing or gagging while on a ventilator or reduce the amount of oxygen your body needs.
  • Sedatives help relieve anxiety, make it easier to breathe on a ventilator, or lower your body’s oxygen needs. Sometimes your doctor may pair a sedative with another medicine to make delivering the oxygen easier. Complications vary depending on the sedative used, the dose, and how long it is used. They can include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), problems with thinking or memory, or a delay in removing the ventilator.

Other treatments

Your doctor may recommend other treatments, including the following:

  • A feeding tube can ensure you get enough of the right nutrients while you are on a ventilator.
  • Blood transfusions treat low hemoglobin levels. Hemoglobin carries oxygen in the blood, so a transfusion can improve the delivery of oxygen to the body’s organs.
  • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) or a similar device helps when ventilation alone cannot deliver enough oxygen or while a patient waits for a lung transplant. ECMO works like an artificial lung, removing carbon dioxide and pumping oxygen-rich blood back into the body.
  • Fluid management through an intravenous (IV) line helps restore fluid levels if needed. Low fluid levels in your blood vessels can prevent oxygen from getting to your organs. If you have too much fluid in the lungs, your doctor may give you medicines that help your body get rid of the extra fluid.
  • Lying facedown helps get more oxygen to your lungs.
  • Physical therapy maintains muscle strength and prevent sores from forming. Movement may help shorten the time you are on a ventilator and improve recovery after you leave the hospital.
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