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Symptoms and Signs of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Doctor's Notes on Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a potentially life-threatening condition in which fluid accumulates in some of the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs, and other alveoli collapse. The damage to the alveoli 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. Injury or damage to the lung that may cause ARDS includes trauma, sepsis (severe infection in the blood), drug overdose, massive transfusion of blood products, acute pancreatitis, or aspiration of fluid into the lungs.

Symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome include severe difficulty breathing, low blood oxygen levels, rapid breathing, anxiety, agitation, confusion, coughing, coughing up foam or fluid, bluish color to fingertips and lips, and fever.

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome
(ARDS) Symptoms

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome
(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

Common Respiratory Illnesses Slideshow

Common Respiratory Illnesses  Slideshow

The body’s respiratory system includes the nose, sinuses, mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), windpipe (trachea), and lungs. Upper respiratory infections affect the parts of the respiratory tract that are higher on the body, including the nose, sinuses, and throat, while lower respiratory infections affect the airways and lungs.

Upper Respiratory Infection

Types of upper respiratory infection include the common cold (head cold), the flu, tonsillitis, laryngitis, and sinus infection. Of the upper respiratory infection symptoms, the most common is a cough. Other symptoms of upper respiratory infection may include stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, muscle aches, and headache.

Lower Respiratory Infection

Lower respiratory infection can be caused by bronchitis, pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), severe flu, or tuberculosis, for example). Lower respiratory infection symptoms include a severe cough that may produce mucus (phlegm), cause shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing when exhaling.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.