What is Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

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  • Written By: M. DePietro
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 December 2019
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Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is the term used to describe a condition which occurs in premature infants. Surfactant is the protein which helps keep the lungs open in newborn babies. If a baby is born prematurely, surfactant may not have been produced yet, which can cause the lungs to collapse shortly after birth. Symptoms usually start immediately after birth and often include increased breathing and heart rate, nasal flaring, grunting and cyanosis or turning blue, which is due to a lack of oxygen.

Treatment may depend on the severity of the condition. All babies with RDS are given humidified oxygen and possibly surfactant through an endotracheal tube inserted into the lungs. Some babies will require assistance breathing and may need to be placed on a ventilator. Usually the more premature the infant is at birth, the more severe the condition may be.

A fetus’s lungs can be tested to determine how developed they are prior to birth. Steroids can be given to stimulate lung development before the baby’s birth, preventing RDS in some infants. Respiratory distress does not only occur in premature babies. Acute respiratory distress syndrome occurs in both children and adults. When it occurs in adults it may also be referred to as adult respiratory distress syndrome. Although it has some similarities to infant respiratory distress syndrome, it is not caused by underdeveloped lungs or a lack of surfactant.


Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is caused by damage to the air sacs, known as alveoli, in the lungs. The air sacs may collapse or fill with fluid, making gas exchange difficult. Carbon dioxide can not be released effectively from the body and oxygen cannot be taken in efficiently. ARDS can develop quickly often within a day or two of damage to the lungs.

The damage to the lungs can be a result of an infection, such as pneumonia, or after a chest injury. Other causes include heart failure, drowning and a drug overdose. The condition can become progressively worse and is often life threatening. Some symptoms are similar to RDS in infants and include, shortness of breath and increased heart rate. Individuals with ARDS have such difficulty breathing they almost always require breathing assistance from a respirator.

Other treatment for adults with respiratory distress may include medications and chest physiotherapy to help mobilize mucus or fluid in the airway. Treatment of the underlying cause of the lung injury will also be needed. The prognosis for adults with acute respiratory distress varies and usually depends on the cause of the lung injury, age and overall patient health.



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