Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), sometimes referred to as acute lung injury or shock lung, is a severe, life-threatening medical condition characterized by widespread inflammation leading to severe injury of the lungs.  ARDS occurs when fluid builds up in the tiny, elastic air sacs (alveoli) in your lungs. More fluid in your lungs means less oxygen can reach your bloodstream. This deprives your organs of the oxygen they need to function.  ARDS is medically recognized by a constellation of findings (low oxygen levels, difficulty breathing needing support, and a chest x-ray with abnormalities spread across both lungs) in a patient with a preceding potential cause of ARDS.  ARDS may be triggered by any illness that revs up the immune response and creates inflammation throughout the body, and it is most often the result of pneumonia or sepsis.  ARDS can also result from acute injuries and illnesses such as traumatic injuries in a car crash, aspiration or inhalation into the lungs, inflammation of the intestines or pancreas, asphyxiation, burns and other conditions. 

 

The first symptoms of ARDS are severe and progressive shortness of breath -- usually within a few hours to a few days after the original disease or traumatic injury.  People who develop ARDS require the support of a mechanical ventilator and several life-sustaining treatments.  Because of this, ARDS patients are invariably hospitalized in an intensive care unit (ICU).  Most ARDS patients remain on a ventilator for two weeks or longer and many people who develop ARDS don't survive. The risk of death increases with age, severity of illness and the presence of chronic medical conditions.  For survivors of ARDS, some recover completely but many others experience lasting damage to their lungs and other varied consequences of critical illness, such as muscle de-conditioning and loss of executive functioning.

What is ARDS?