Acute respiratory distress syndrome

Acute respiratory distress syndrome is a life-threatening condition that usually develops in people whose lungs have been damaged by injury or disease. It often leads to respiratory failure, in which the life-sustaining exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs is disrupted.

In acute respiratory distress syndrome, the air sacs of the lung tissue become filled with fluid and cannot exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. It can be caused by pneumonia; severe bacterial infections in other parts of the body; inhaling vomit, water, or irritants; drug overdose; or severe injury.

In most people, death occurs if acute respiratory distress is not treated. Even with treatment, the survival rate is only 50%.

Symptoms

The first symptoms are usually an increase in those of the underlying condition. As acute respiratory distress syndrome develops, rapid, shallow, and labored breathing are the main symptoms. As it gets worse, the skin may take on a bluish tinge (called cyanosis) because the tissues are not getting enough oxygen.

Treatment

See your doctor immediately if you develop symptoms. He or she will measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood and do a chest x-ray. People with acute respiratory distress syndrome are usually admitted to the intensive care unit of a hospital.

Antibiotics, and corticosteroids given intravenously, may be started. If it gets very difficult to breathe, a mechanical ventilator may be used to help you breathe.