What is respiratory distress?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is the result of an abrupt change in your breathing abilities. This is caused by fluid build-up in the air sacs of the lungs. ARDS typically occurs in people with chronic illness or people who experience injury to the lungs. Lung inflammation that leads to ARDS can be caused by aspiration (inhaling vomit into the lungs), inhalation of chemicals, pneumonia, septic shock, trauma, drug overdose, smoke inhalation, heart failure, near drowning, and pancreatitis. Most people who experience ARDS are already hospitalized for these other serious medical conditions. Ultimately, the build-up of fluid in the lungs results in serious problems with oxygen being transported into the bloodstream and throughout the body, leading to further life-threatening health complications.

The symptoms of ARDS vary in intensity depending on the cause of the condition. Symptoms generally include shortness of breath, low blood pressure, confusion, extreme fatigue, coughing and fever. The risk factors for ARDS include liver disease, use of a breathing machine, smoking, heavy alcohol use, and recent surgery [source: Mayo Clinic].


ARDS is first assessed by listening to your lungs. An abnormal crackling means that there is fluid in the lungs. If your doctor suspects ARDS, he is likely to order a chest X-ray, arterial blood gas analysis, CT scan, blood tests and heart tests. People with ARDS are generally cared for in the intensive care unit of a hospital, as they need constant, round-the-clock care. Treatment involves breathing assistance and treating the underlying condition that led to ARDS. People with ARDS are typically put on a breathing machine that sends high levels of oxygen to the lungs.