First Time User? Enroll now.
Get Care Now
COVID-19: Vaccine information, visitor restrictions, testing, treatment, and additional resources
Home > Health Library > Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a lung problem. It happens when fluid builds up in the lungs, causing breathing failure and low oxygen levels in the blood. ARDS is life-threatening, because it keeps organs like the brain and kidneys from getting the oxygen they need to work.
ARDS occurs most often in people who are being treated for another serious illness or injury. Most of the time, people who get ARDS are already in the hospital for another reason.
This is a very serious condition that causes death in many people. About two-thirds of people who develop ARDS survive.
ARDS can be caused by many things, including:
The main symptoms are severe shortness of breath and rapid breathing. ARDS can develop quickly.
Your doctor will diagnose ARDS based on a medical and physical exam and other tests.
An arterial blood gas test may be done to check oxygen levels in the blood.
You may have other tests, including:
ARDS is treated in the intensive care unit. Treatment focuses on getting oxygen to the lungs and other organs, and then treating the cause of ARDS.
Oxygen therapy may be given through a mask that fits over the mouth. If you still have trouble breathing, your doctor may insert a breathing tube that is connected to a machine (ventilator). The breathing tube will help you breathe until you can breathe on your own.
Your doctor may also give you medicines, such as antibiotics, to treat an infection if it is causing ARDS. You may also be given fluids through an IV to help you recover.
Among people who survive ARDS, some recover completely. But it can take a few years to do so.
Others have long-term health problems, such as:
ARDS is a serious condition, and getting better is hard work. Your life may be changed in important ways. Here are some things that might help:
Lee W, Slutsky A (2010). Acute respiratory distress syndrome. In JF Murray, JA Nadel, eds., Textbook of Respiratory Medicine, 5th ed, vol. 2, pp. 2104–2129. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
Current as of:
March 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Current as of: March 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.