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ARDS Symptoms, Causes & Risk Factors

ARDS may initially be diagnosed as pneumonia or pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs from heart disease). However, your doctor may suspect ARDS if you are not getting better and have one of the known causes of ARDS.

What Are Symptoms of ARDS?

Patients with ARDS have shortness of breath, often severe. They also have a cough and many have fever. Those with ARDS also have fast heart rates and rapid breathing. Occasionally, they experience chest pain, especially during inhalation. Some patients who have very low oxygen levels may have bluish coloring of nails and lips from the severely decreased oxygen levels in the blood.

What Causes ARDS?

The causes of ARDS are divided into two categories: direct or indirect injuries to the lung. Some of the direct injuries to the lung include pneumonia, breathing stomach contents into the lung (also known as aspiration), near drowning, lung bruising from trauma (such as a car accident) and smoke inhalation from a house fire.

The indirect injuries to the lung include inflammation of the pancreas, severe infection (also known as sepsis), blood transfusions, burns, and medication reactions.

Fortunately, most patients with the above problems will not develop ARDS. It is not known why some will.

What Are Risk Factors?

While it is not clear who will develop ARDS, there are a few factors that may increase the risk for ARDS. These factors include:

  • A history of cigarette smoking
  • Oxygen use for a pre-existing lung condition
  • Recent high-risk surgery
  • Obesity
  • Low protein in the blood
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Recent chemotherapy

When to See Your Doctor

Most patients who develop ARDS will already be in the hospital, but some may not be hospitalized. Call your doctor or 911 if you experience severe shortness of breath, or if you have a new cough or fever.

This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.


    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.


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