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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome
(ARDS)

ARDS Overview

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is characterized by the development of sudden breathlessness within hours to days of an inciting event. Inciting events include:

  • trauma,
  • sepsis (microorganisms growing in a person's blood),
  • drug overdose,
  • massive transfusion of blood products,
  • acute pancreatitis, or
  • aspiration (fluid entering the lungs, especially stomach contents).

In many cases, the initial event is obvious, but, in others (such as drug overdose) the underlying cause may not be so easy to identify. ARDS typically develops within 12-48 hours after the inciting event, although, in rare instances, it may take up to a few days. Persons developing ARDS are critically ill, often with multisystem organ failure. It is a life-threatening condition; therefore, hospitalization is required for prompt management.

ARDS is associated with severe and diffuse injury to the alveolar-capillary membrane (the air sacs and small blood vessels) of the lungs. Fluid accumulates in some alveoli of the lungs, while some other alveoli collapse. This alveolar damage impedes the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which leads to a reduced concentration of oxygen in the blood. Low levels of oxygen in the blood cause damage to other vital organs of the body such as the kidneys.

ARDS occurs in children as well as adults.

ARDS Causes

A number of risk factors are associated with the development of ARDS.

  • Sepsis (presence of various pathogenic microorganisms, or their toxins, in the blood or tissues)
  • Severe traumatic injury (especially multiple fractures), severe head injury, and injury to the chest
  • Fracture of the long bones
  • Transfusion of multiple units of blood
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Drug overdose
  • Aspiration
  • Viral pneumonias
  • Bacterial and fungal pneumonias
  • Near drowning
  • Toxic inhalations
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/30/2014
Medical Author:

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Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome »

Since World War I, it has been recognized that some patients with nonthoracic injuries, severe pancreatitis, massive transfusion, sepsis, and other conditions may develop respiratory distress, diffuse lung infiltrates, and respiratory failure sometimes after a delay of hours to days.

Read More on Medscape Reference »


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