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General Information About ARDS


What is ARDS?

The acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a condition in which the lungs become very inflamed. This causes fluid to leak out of the blood vessels of the lungs and flood the lungs’ air sacs (alveoli). Inflammation also causes some cells to accumulate in the air sacs, and it may cause some air sacs to collapse. Patients with ARDS feel short of breath, and their lungs may not get enough oxygen from the air into the blood stream.

What causes ARDS?

Pneumonia is the most common cause of ARDS. Other causes include severe infections in other parts of the body, severe trauma, severe pancreatitis, and severe transfusion reactions. Each of these diseases can lead directly or indirectly to inflammation in the lungs.

Who is at risk of getting ARDS?

Anybody can get ARDS, including young and old, men and women, and people who are perfectly healthy before contracting one of the diseases than can cause ARDS. Patients with chronic diseases such as AIDS and cancer or patients taking medications such as prednisone that decrease their defenses against infections are more likely to experience ARDS.

How common is ARDS?

Approximately 190,000 patients experience ARDS each year in the United States.

How serious is ARDS?

It is a life-threatening problem. We estimate that 39% of patients with ARDS die before discharge from the hospital. The death rate is higher in the elderly and in patients who have chronic diseases such as kidney failure, AIDS, and COPD.

Are there long-term consequences to survivors of ARDS?

In most survivors, the inflammation in the lungs resolves without causing significant impairments in lung function. Most survivors do not have serious breathing problems several months after experiencing ARDS. However, some survivors have other problems such as muscle weakness, depression, and memory loss that may persist for many months or even years after survival from ARDS.

How can ARDS be prevented?

Vaccinations against influenza and pneumonia can prevent some cases of ARDS. If a patient has a fever, cough, and chest pain, he or she could have pneumonia. Early treatment with antibiotics may prevent it from progressing

Source: Roy Brower, MD — Member, ATS Board of Directors

Four Facts About ARDS

  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is an acute process, which results in moderate to severe loss of lung function. 

  • In ARDS there is intense inflammation of the lung tissue, which can be caused by a variety of factors. This inflammation in the lung results in a loss of function.

  • The alveoli lose their ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the blood. This loss of function of the alveoli is due to collapse of the air sacs and leakage of fluid (which is called edema) into the air sacs.

  • This sequence of events can happen rapidly. It can start in one lung and advance to the other. If the inflammation persists over time, the lungs will eventually attempt to heal the damage, which results in the formation of scar tissue.  The formation of scar tissue will continue to create a problem with gas (oxygen and carbon dioxide) exchange.