What Is ARDS?



ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, is a lung condition that leads to low oxygen levels in the blood. ARDS can be life threatening. This is because your body's organs, such as the kidneys and brain, need oxygen-rich blood to work properly.

ARDS usually occurs in people who are very ill with another disease or who have major injuries. Most people are already in the hospital when they develop ARDS.

Overview

When you breathe, air passes through your nose and mouth into your windpipe. The air then travels to your lungs' air sacs. These sacs are called alveoli.

Small blood vessels called capillaries run through the walls of the alveoli. Oxygen passes from the alveoli into the capillaries and then into the bloodstream. Blood carries the oxygen to all parts of the body, including the body's organs.

In ARDS, infections, injuries, or other conditions cause the lung's capillaries to leak more fluid than normal into the alveoli. This prevents the lungs from filling with air and moving enough oxygen into the bloodstream.

When this happens, the body's organs don't get the oxygen they need. Without oxygen, the organs may not work properly or may stop working completely.

Most people who develop ARDS are in the hospital for another serious health problem. Rarely, people who aren't hospitalized have health problems, such as severe pneumonia that lead to ARDS.

If you have trouble breathing, call your doctor right away. If you have severe shortness of breath, call 9–1–1.

Outlook

ARDS treatment has improved in recent years. As a result, more people are surviving ARDS. This condition affects about 190,000 people in the United States each year. About 7 out of 10 people who get prompt and proper treatment for ARDS survive it.

Some people who survive recover completely. Others may have lasting damage to their lungs and other health problems.

Researchers are studying new treatments for ARDS.

Other Names for ARDS

Acute lung injury
Adult respiratory distress syndrome
Increased-permeability pulmonary edema
Non cardiac pulmonary edema
ARDS used to be called stiff lung, shock lung, and wet lung.



What Causes ARDS?

Many conditions or factors can directly or indirectly injure the lungs and lead to ARDS. Some common ones are:

It's not clear why some very sick or seriously injured people develop ARDS and others don't. Researchers are trying to find out why ARDS develops and how to prevent it.

Who Is At Risk for ARDS?

People at risk for ARDS have a condition or illness that can directly or indirectly injure their lungs.

Direct Lung Injury - Conditions that can directly injure the lungs include:

Conditions that can indirectly injure the lungs include:

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of ARDS?

The first signs and symptoms of ARDS are feeling like you can't get enough air into your lungs, rapid breathing, and low oxygen levels in the blood.

Other signs and symptoms depend on the cause of the condition. They may occur before ARDS develops. For example, if pneumonia is causing ARDS, you may have a cough and fever before you feel short of breath.

Sometimes, people with ARDS develop signs and symptoms such as low blood pressure, confusion, and extreme tiredness. This may mean that the body's organs, such as the kidneys and heart, aren't getting enough oxygen-rich blood.

Most people who develop ARDS are in the hospital for another serious health problem. Rarely, people who aren't hospitalized have health problems, such as severe pneumonia that lead to ARDS.

If you have trouble breathing, call your doctor right away. If you have severe shortness of breath, call 9–1–1.



How Is ARDS Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose ARDS based on your medical history, a physical exam, and results from tests.

Medical History . . . Your doctor will ask about conditions you may have or have recently had that can lead to ARDS. For a list of these conditions, see "Who Is At Risk for ARDS?" Your doctor also will ask whether you have heart problems, such as heart failure, which can cause fluid to build up in your lungs.

Physical Exam . . . ARDS may cause abnormal breathing sounds, such as crackling. Your doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope to hear these sounds.

He or she also will listen to your heart and look for signs of extra fluid in other parts of your body. Extra fluid may mean you have heart or kidney problems.

Your doctor will look for a bluish color on your skin and lips. A bluish color means your blood has a low level of oxygen. This is a possible sign of ARDS.

Diagnostic Tests . . . Diagnostic tests are used to find the cause of your symptoms. You may have ARDS, or you may have another condition that causes similar symptoms.

Initial Tests . . . The first tests done are:

  1. An arterial blood gas test. This blood test shows the oxygen level in your blood. A low level of oxygen in the blood may be a sign of ARDS.
  2. Chest x ray. This test is used to take a picture of your lungs. It can show whether you have extra fluid in your lungs.
  3. Blood tests, such as a complete blood count, blood chemistries, and blood cultures. These tests help find the cause of ARDS, such as an infection.
  4. Sputum cultures. This test looks at the spit you've coughed up from your lungs. It can help find the cause of an infection.

Other Tests . . . Other tests used to diagnose ARDS include:

How Is ARDS Treated?

ARDS is treated with oxygen, fluids, and medicines. Treatments are done in a hospital's intensive care unit.

The main goals of treating ARDS are to get oxygen to your lungs and organs (like the brain and kidneys) and treat the underlying condition that's causing ARDS.

Oxygen . . . First, your doctor will try to give you extra oxygen through soft, plastic prongs that fit into your nose, or through a mask that fits over your mouth . . . or mouth and nose.

If your oxygen level doesn't increase or it's still hard for you to breathe, your doctor will give you oxygen through a breathing tube. The flexible tube will be inserted through your mouth or nose and into your windpipe.

Before inserting the tube, your doctor will squirt or spray a liquid medicine into your throat and possibly your nose to make it numb. This helps prevent coughing and gagging when the tube is inserted. Your doctor also will give you medicine, through an intravenous line into your bloodstream, to make you sleepy and relaxed.

The breathing tube will be connected to a machine that helps you breathe. The ventilator will fill your lungs with oxygen-rich air.

Your doctor will adjust the ventilator often to help your lungs get the right amount of oxygen. This also will help prevent any further injury to your lungs from the pressure of the ventilator.

The breathing tube and ventilator are used until you can breathe on your own. If you need a ventilator for more than a few days, your doctor may do a tracheotomy. This involves making a small cut in your neck to create an opening to the windpipe. Your doctor will place the breathing tube directly into the windpipe. The tube is then connected to the ventilator.

Fluids . . . Fluids may be given to improve the flow of blood through your body and to provide nutrition. Your doctor will make sure you get the right amount of fluids.

Too much fluid can fill the lungs, making it harder to get the oxygen you need. Not enough fluid can limit blood and oxygen flow to the body's organs. Fluids usually are given through an IV line inserted in one of your blood vessels.

Medicines . . . Your doctor may give you medicines to prevent and treat infections and to relieve discomfort.

Complications From ARDS

If you have ARDS, you can develop other medical problems while in the hospital. The most common are infections, pneumothorax, lung scarring, and blood clots.

Living With ARDS

Some people fully recover from ARDS. Others continue to have health problems. After you go home from the hospital, you may have one or more of the following problems:

Getting Help

You can take steps to recover from ARDS and improve your quality of life.

Ask your family and friends for help with everyday activities.
Go to pulmonary rehabilitation (rehab). A rehab program can show you how to return to normal activities and stay active. Rehab may include exercise training, education, and counseling. Your rehab team may include doctors, nurses, and other specialists. They will work with you to create a program that meets your needs.
Join a support group for ARDS. The ARDS Support Center, the American Lung Association's Better Breathers Clubs, and the ARDS Foundation are examples of support networks that can help you learn about and cope with your condition.
Seek help from a mental health professional if you feel depressed.
Don't smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke.

Key Points

ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, is a lung condition that leads to low oxygen levels in the blood. ARDS can be life threatening. This is because your body's organs, such as the kidneys and brain, need oxygen-rich blood to work properly.
Most people who develop ARDS are in the hospital for another serious health problem. Rarely, people who aren't hospitalized have health problems (such as severe pneumonia) that lead to ARDS. If you have trouble breathing, call your doctor right away. If you have severe shortness of breath, call 9–1–1.

In ARDS, infections, injuries, or other conditions cause the lung's tiny blood vessels to leak more fluid than normal into the lungs' air sacs. This prevents the lungs from filling with air and moving enough oxygen into the bloodstream.

Some common conditions and factors that can lead to ARDS are sepsis, pneumonia, severe bleeding due to an injury, an injury to the chest or head, breathing in harmful fumes or smoke, and inhaling vomited stomach contents from the mouth.
People at risk for ARDS have a condition or illness that can directly or indirectly injure their lungs.

The first signs and symptoms of ARDS are feeling like you can't get enough air into your lungs, rapid breathing, and low oxygen levels in the blood. Other signs and symptoms depend on the cause of the condition. They may occur before ARDS develops.
Your doctor will diagnose ARDS based on your medical history, a physical exam, and results from tests.

ARDS is treated with oxygen, fluids, and medicines. Treatments are done in a hospital's intensive care unit. Patients who have ARDS can develop other medical problems while in the hospital. The most common problems are infections, pneumothorax (collapsed lung), lung scarring, and blood clots.

Some people fully recover from ARDS. Others continue to have health problems. These problems may include shortness of breath, tiredness and muscle weakness, depression, and problems with memory and thinking clearly.

You can take steps to recover from ARDS and improve your quality of life. Ask you family and friends to help with everyday activities. Go to pulmonary rehabilitation if you doctor recommends it. Join a support group for ARDS. Seek help from a mental health professional if you feel depressed. Don't smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke.

ARDS treatment has improved in recent years. As a result, more people are surviving ARDS. Researchers are studying new treatments for the condition.


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