Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

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Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

Question

What is acute respiratory distress syndrome?

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Answer

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a life-threatening condition caused by widespread inflammation of the lungs. This inflammation causes fluid to leak from small blood vessels in the lungs. As a result, fluid builds up in the air sacs (alveoli) and other lung tissue. When the air sacs fill with fluid, the lungs can no longer fill properly with air and the lungs become stiff. This makes breathing very difficult.

In most cases, the cause of ARDS can't be determined. Doctors refer to this as idiopathic ARDS. Known causes of ARDS include:

  • Severe pneumonia
  • Chemical inhalation, such as ammonia
  • Near drowning
  • Adverse drug reaction affecting the lungs
  • Overwhelming heart failure with fluid (edema) in the lungs
  • Widespread infection in the body (sepsis)

The main symptom of ARDS is severe shortness of breath. This may develop within minutes or gradually over a few days. A doctor may confirm a diagnosis of ARDS by:

  • A chest X-ray
  • Arterial blood gas analysis, which measures the oxygen content in blood

Treatment depends on the underlying cause but may include:

  • A breathing machine (mechanical ventilation) until the lungs heal
  • Supplemental oxygen

If the cause is sepsis, additional treatment is with antibiotics. The medication drotrecogin alfa (Xigris) also is effective in treating some people with sepsis-induced ARDS.

Last Updated: 05/15/2006
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