Acute / Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

What is adult respiratory distress syndrome?

Adult respiratory distress syndrome is a serious health condition, which can affect all adult patients. This condition occurs when the lungs are unable to distribute enough oxygen for the body and comes in two forms: adult respiratory distress syndrome and neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (which has an effect on newborn babies). Adult respiratory distress syndrome occurs when the lungs fill with fluid, which affects an individual’s capability to take in breaths of oxygen. ARDS is sometimes known as ‘shock-lung’.

Adult respiratory distress syndrome is most common in people over the age of 70 and it is estimated that around 1 in 6,000 people in England develop the affliction every year.

What causes adult respiratory distress syndrome?

Adult respiratory distress syndrome usually develops as a result of a severe infection or injury, which causes damage to the lungs. Inflammation causes the air sacs in the lungs to collapse and this results in the lungs filling with fluid. Once the lungs start to fill with fluid, it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe.

Possible causes of inflammation include:

  • Pneumonia.
  • Flu (seasonal flu and swine flu can both cause inflammation).
  • Smoke inhalation.
  • Trauma or severe chest injury.
  • Drug abuse.
  • Heart failure.
  • Acute pancreatitis (when the pancreas suddenly becomes inflamed).
  • Burns.
  • Near drowning.
  • Sepsis.
  • Inhalation of toxic chemicals.

What are the symptoms of adult respiratory distress syndrome?

It is uncommon for symptoms of adult respiratory distress syndrome to develop independently and they usually develop as a result of serious medical conditions, life-threatening incidents or as a complication of an underlying health problem. Most people who develop symptoms associated with ARDS have already been taken into hospital for other reasons.

Symptoms of ARDS include:

  • Rapid breathing.
  • Blue fingertips, toes and lips.
  • Shallow breathing.
  • Racing heartbeat.
  • Tiredness; this can contribute to dizziness and confusion.

How is ARDS diagnosed?

ARDS is diagnosed using blood tests and a pulse oximetry test. These tests are used to measure the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. A chest X-ray may also be used to determine whether or not the lungs are damaged.

Treatment for adult respiratory distress syndrome

If an individual develops ARDS they will usually be admitted to an intensive care unit, where they will be put on a ventilator to help them breathe more easily. An oxygen mask may also be used to help the patient breathe, and if the condition is very severe a tube may be put down into the lungs to pump oxygen into them.

Doctors will try to identify the cause of ARDS when drawing up a treatment plan. In most cases, ARDS is caused by an infection and if this is the case, antibiotics will be prescribed.

What is the outlook for adult respiratory distress syndrome?

Many people respond well to treatment but it can take several weeks to recover fully and during this time, patients will have to stay in hospital, with doctors and nurses monitoring their condition very closely. ARDS is a medical emergency and the faster it is treated the better. Survival rates are getting better but roughly a third of people who develop the condition will not survive.

Many people recover fully from ARDS, but it can contribute to complications, including:

  • Lung damage and abnormal lung function.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Breathing difficulties.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Impaired mental function.
  • Depression.


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