by EBSCO Medical Review Board
(ARDS; Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome; Non-cardiogenic Pulmonary Edema)


Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a form of severe lung damage. It happens in people who are very ill or hurt. It can be deadly.

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ARDS is caused by small blood vessels that leak fluid into the small air sacs of the lungs. The fluid in the sacs blocks oxygen from passing into the body.

Direct injuries that may lead to ARDS are:

  • Pneumonia
  • Sepsis of the lungs
  • Breathing regurgitated stomach matter
  • A bruise of the lung
  • Near-drowning
  • Breathing smoke or certain chemicals
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Indirect injuries that may lead to ARDS are:

Risk Factors

The health problems above raise the risk of ARDS.

Other things that may raise the risk are:


Symptoms may start slowly or all at once. A person may have:

  • Problems breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Signs of infection, such as fever or chills
  • Bluish skin or fingernail color
  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.

Blood tests will be done to look for:

  • Low oxygen levels
  • Infection
  • Signs of heart failure
  • Pictures will be taken of the chest. This can be done with:


    The underlying cause will be treated.

    The goal of treatment is to help a person breathe. The doctors may use:

    • Mechanical ventilation—a machine moves air in and out of the lungs
    • Non-invasive mask mechanical ventilation—a mask delivers air from a ventilator to the lungs
    • Oxygen therapy—a mask or tube delivers oxygen through the nose
    • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)—advanced breathing and heart support (not as common)


    ARDS cannot be prevented.


    American Lung Association 

    National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute 


    Canadian Lung Association 

    Health Canada 


    Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed April 28, 2022.

    Meyer, N.J., Gattinoni, L., et al. Acute respiratory distress syndrome. Lancet, 2021; 398 (10300): 622-637.

    What is acute respiratory distress syndrome? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Accessed April 28, 2022.

    Revision Information

    • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board James P. Cornell, MD
    • Review Date: 03/2022
    • Update Date: 04/28/2022