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Key Facts

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) occurs when our lungs are severely injured, often by infection or trauma.
  • Many people who get ARDS are already in the hospital due to an infection or a trauma. But if you are not and your symptoms suggest ARDS, go to the nearest ER immediately.
  • ARDS causes fluid to leak into the lungs, making it difficult to get oxygen into the bloodstream.
  • Treatment is improving and more people are surviving ARDS now than in the past. Survival can depend on age and presence of other medical problems.

How ARDS Affects Your Body

In the early stages of ARDS, fluid from the smallest blood vessels in the lungs starts to leak into the alveoli—the tiny air sacs where oxygen exchange takes place. The lungs become smaller and stiffer and it becomes hard to breath. The amount of oxygen in the blood falls. This is called hypoxemia. The body becomes starved for oxygen. This harms the brain and other tissues and leads to organ failure.

ARDS patients need help to open closed airspaces, get oxygen into the blood and make it easier to breath. A ventilator and extra oxygen are used for these reasons and maintained until the injury resolves.

What Causes ARDS?

ARDS results from lung injury. The exact nature of the injury is not always clear. Common injuries are:

  • Sepsis, a life-threatening condition occurs when your immune system must work aggressively to fight off infection or trauma
  • Inhaling harmful substances
  • Pneumonia
  • Trauma to the head, chest or other areas of the body
  • Blood transfusions
  • Pancreatitis
  • Near drowning

Who Is at Risk for ARDS?

Most people who develop ARDS are already in the hospital because of injury or illness. While it is not clear who will develop ARDS, certain factors may increase the risk for ARDS including:

  • Advanced age
  • A history of tobacco use
  • A history of alcoholism
  • Presence of chronic lung disease
  • High-risk surgery

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: March 24, 2020

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