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Learning About Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

ICU equipment including ventilator, heart monitor, and medicine pump with IV, attached to patient

What is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a serious lung problem. Fluid builds up in the lungs, causing breathing failure and low oxygen levels in the blood. ARDS is life-threatening, because it keeps organs like the brain and kidneys from getting the oxygen they need to work. It can also put a strain on the heart.

Most people with ARDS will be treated in an intensive care unit (ICU).

Doctors don't always know why someone gets this lung problem. It occurs most often in people who are being treated for another serious illness or injury. Most of the time, people who get ARDS are already in the hospital for another reason.

What causes ARDS?

Many things can cause ARDS, such as:

  • An infection in the blood (sepsis). This is the most common cause.
  • A serious injury to the head or chest, or severe bleeding caused by an injury.
  • An infection in the lungs (pneumonia).
  • Having many blood transfusions.

What are the symptoms?

People with ARDS have severe trouble breathing. They feel short of breath and breathe fast.

ARDS can get worse quickly.

How is it diagnosed?

The doctor will diagnose ARDS based on a medical exam and other tests. These tests may include:

  • Imaging tests like a chest X-ray or CT scan to look for fluid buildup or pneumonia.
  • Tests such as an EKG or echocardiogram, to see if a heart problem is causing the symptoms.
  • Blood tests, like an arterial blood gas test, to look at how well the body is getting oxygen.

How is ARDS treated?

ARDS is treated in the ICU. Treatment is focused on:

  • Finding out what caused the problem. If ARDS is caused by an infection, for example, the infection will be treated with antibiotics.
  • During recovery in the ICU, the person will get:
    • Breathing support. This often includes a ventilator, which is a machine to help the lungs work properly.
    • Nutrition support. It may include feeding through a vein or through a tube in the stomach.
    • Monitoring (such as X-rays, heart monitoring, and oxygen monitoring).
    • Support for the body. This includes things like making sure that the heart, kidneys, and brain have the best chance of recovering.
    • Fluids and medicines delivered through an I.V. (a tube that is attached to a vein).

Some people recover completely from ARDS, but it can take a few years. Others will have long-term health problems such as breathing problems and depression.

It may be scary to see relatives or loved ones surrounded by machines in the ICU. Know that the ICU staff is highly trained to care for people with ARDS. They will do everything they can to help. You can ask them any questions you might have. You can also ask them about counselling and support.

Where can you learn more?

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