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ARDS Information

What is ARDS?

ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, is a lung condition that leads to low oxygen levels in the blood. It can be life threatening, because your body's organs needs oxygen-rich blood to work properly.

ARDS usually occurs in people who are very ill with another disease or who have major injuries. Most people are already in the hospital when they develop ARDS.


When you breathe, air passes through your nose and mouth into your windpipe. The air then travels to your lungs' air sacs. These sacs are called alveoli (al-VEE-uhl-eye).

Small blood vessels called capillaries run through the walls of the alveoli. Oxygen passes from the alveoli into the capillaries and then into the bloodstream. Blood carries the oxygen to all parts of the body, including the body's organs.

In ARDS, infections, injuries, or other conditions cause the lung's capillaries to leak more fluid than normal into the alveoli. This prevents the lungs from filling with air and moving enough oxygen into the bloodstream.

When this happens, the body's organs don't get the oxygen they need. Without oxygen, the organs may not work properly or may stop working completely.

Most people who develop ARDS are in the hospital for another serious health problem. Rarely, people who aren't hospitalized have health problems (such as severe pneumonia) that lead to ARDS.

If you have trouble breathing, call your doctor right away. If you have severe shortness of breath, call 9-1-1.

What Causes ARDS?

Many conditions or factors can directly or indirectly injure the lungs and lead to ARDS. Some common ones are:

  • Sepsis. This is a condition in which bacteria infect the bloodstream.
  • Pneumonia. This is an infection in the lungs.
  • Severe bleeding due to an injury to the body.
  • An injury to the chest or head, like a severe blow.
  • Breathing in harmful fumes or smoke.
  • Inhaling vomited stomach contents from the mouth.

Complications From ARDS

If you have ARDS, you can develop other medical problems while in the hospital. The most common are infections, pneumothorax (noo-mo-THOR-aks; collapsed lung), lung scarring, and blood clots.

  • Infections. Being in the hospital and lying down for a long time can make you prone to infections, such as pneumonia. Being on a ventilator also can put you at higher risk for infections. Infections can be treated with antibiotics.
  • Pneumothorax. This is a condition in which air or gas collects in the space around the lungs, which can cause one or both lungs to collapse. The pressure of the air from a ventilator can cause this condition. Your doctor will put a tube into your chest to remove the air and let your lung(s) expand again.
  • Lung scarring. ARDS causes the lungs to become stiff (scarred) and makes it hard for them to expand and fill with air. Being on a ventilator also can cause lung scarring. Often, lung scarring heals before you leave the hospital.
  • Blood clots. Lying down for long periods can cause blood clots to form in your body. A blood clot that forms in a vein deep in your body is called a deep vein thrombosis. This type of blood clot can break off, travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, and block blood flow. This is called pulmonary embolism.

Source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

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