Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) occurs when fluid builds up in the tiny, elastic air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. The fluid keeps your lungs from filling with enough air, which means less oxygen reaches your bloodstream. This deprives your organs of the oxygen they need to function.
ARDS typically occurs in people who are already critically ill or who have significant injuries. Severe shortness of breath â the main symptom of ARDS â usually develops within a few hours to a few days after the precipitating injury or infection.
Many people who develop ARDS don't survive. The risk of death increases with age and severity of illness. Of the people who do survive ARDS, some recover completely while others experience lasting damage to their lungs.
The signs and symptoms of ARDS can vary in intensity, depending on its cause and severity, as well as the presence of underlying heart or lung disease. They include:
ARDS usually follows a major illness or injury, and most people who are affected are already hospitalized.
The mechanical cause of ARDS is fluid leaked from the smallest blood vessels in the lungs into the tiny air sacs where blood is oxygenated. Normally, a protective membrane keeps this fluid in the vessels. Severe illness or injury, however, can cause damage to the membrane, leading to the fluid leakage of ARDS.
The most common underlying causes of ARDS include:
There's no specific test to identify ARDS. The diagnosis is based on the physical exam, chest X-ray and oxygen levels. It's also important to rule out other diseases and conditions â for example, certain heart problems â that can produce similar symptoms.
A test using blood from an artery in your wrist can measure your oxygen level. Other types of blood tests can check for signs of infection or anemia. If your doctor suspects that you have a lung infection, secretions from your airway may be tested to determine the cause of the infection.
Because the signs and symptoms of ARDS are similar to those of certain heart problems, your doctor may recommend heart tests such as:
If you have ARDS, you can develop other medical problems while in the hospital. The most common problems are:
Thanks to improved treatments, more people are surviving ARDS. However, many survivors end up with potentially serious and sometimes lasting effects:
If you're recovering from ARDS, the following suggestions can help protect your lungs:
Recovery from ARDS can be a long road, and you'll need plenty of support. Although everyone's recovery is different, being aware of common challenges encountered by others with the disorder can help. Consider these tips:
Most people who develop ARDS are already hospitalized for another condition, and many are critically ill. You're especially at risk if you have a widespread infection in your bloodstream (sepsis).
People who have a history of chronic alcoholism are at higher risk of developing ARDS. They're also more likely to die of ARDS.