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What is Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a serious medical condition where the patient is not getting enough oxygen due to damage inside the lungs. It is also known as acute respiratory distress syndrome and it can be fatal in around one third of cases. For patients who do recover, there can be lasting damage to the lungs, as well as neurological problems caused by oxygen deprivation during the period of respiratory distress. This condition requires immediate medical treatment in an intensive care setting.

People develop adult respiratory distress syndrome when their lungs are injured with inflammation and swelling as a result of infections, trauma, aspiration of food or vomit, septic shock, or chronic disease. The lungs become stiff and heavy, making it hard for patients to breathe, and fluid builds up in the air sacs that line the lungs. The fluid prevents gas exchange, limiting the amount of oxygen absorbed by the lungs and causing distress.

Patients with adult respiratory distress syndrome usually breathe rapidly because they are trying to get more oxygen and their breathing is labored because of the stiffening in the lungs. They experience shortness of breath, low blood pressure, and bluing of the extremities. Patients can enter an altered level of consciousness as a result of damage to the brain, and organ failure will occur as a result of decreased oxygen saturation in the blood.

Treatment for adult respiratory distress syndrome involves getting the patient on oxygen therapy and clearing the lungs so the patient can breathe. This can involve treatment of the underlying cause with antibiotics and other medication, as well as surgery. Monitoring in the hospital is usually required, as patients are often very unstable. Once the patient recovers, there may be permanent damage in the lungs. This can lead to respiratory problems in the future and may make the patient more susceptible to respiratory diseases. Brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation is another concern.

People with respiratory conditions should be monitored closely for the early signs of adult respiratory distress syndrome. Diseases like pneumonia can be associated with ARDS as a complication. Abnormal breath sounds, heavily labored breathing, confusion, and rapid breathing are all causes for concern in a patient. If people are not sure about whether a patient needs to go to the hospital, they can call a nursing hotline to discuss the situation and get a recommendation on the basis of the patient's symptoms and risk factors like age and a prior history of lung disease.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Read more
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