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What is adult respiratory distress syndrome?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome was originally called "adult respiratory distress syndrome," but it was renamed in 1994 because although it is almost always found in adults, it does affect people of all ages. Also known as ARDS, it usually occurs when an injury (from trauma, drowning or smoke inhalation) or severe infection, such as pneumonia or blood poisoning, causes serious damage to the lungs. This is in contrast to neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (NRDS), which occurs in premature babies who are born before their lungs have fully developed.

About half of ARDS patients develop the disease within 24 hours of the event that caused it. Symptoms include rapid, shallow, labored breathing; blue fingers, toes and lips; rapid heartbeat; and fatigue that is often followed by confusion or drowsiness.

Patients will probably be admitted to an intensive care unit of a hospital (chances are they were already in the hospital for whatever caused the disease in the first place) and put on a ventilator until they recover. If the symptoms are moderate, an oxygen mask may be sufficient. You will also require treatment for the underlying cause of the disease. While prophylactic antibiotics are not helpful in managing ARDS, there is controversy over whether steroids are beneficial. Most patients begin to respond to treatment within 72 hours, but many may have to remain in the hospital for weeks or months.

ARDS is rare, affecting approximately 12.6 to 18 out of 100,000 people a year, but 35 to 45 percent of diagnosed patients die of complications of the disease. This is a much better prognosis than there was in the 1980s, when the mortality rate was 53 to 68 percent. Most survivors go on to lead normal lives, but some may have to deal with complications, such as permanent lung damage, muscle weakness from spending so much time in bed, depression, and even brain damage from lack of oxygen.