Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome is an extremely dangerous condition. Death can be avoided if signs and symptoms are recognized and the person is treated immediately. Find out what to look for and how this condition is treated.

What is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

Most of us know of one obvious way for fluid to get into our lungs. That way is near drowning. The problem is, our lungs can fill with deadly fluid for many reasons, including as a result of factors occurring within our body that have nothing to do with inhaling water. Any of these factors eventually result in fluid buildup within the lungs and a collection or signs and symptoms called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Be it due to the inhalation of toxic smoke, a blood infection, pneumonia, or any other number of causes, ARDS is a serious problem that needs emergency medical attention. That's why recognizing its signs and symptoms as well as understanding the basics of its treatment is important.

ARDS: Signs and Symptoms

Depending on the cause, the signs and symptoms of acute respiratory distress may appear quite quickly after the inciting event or it may take 12-48 hours to develop. Sometimes, it can even take several days for problems to arise.

Alveoli of the lungs can fill with fluid leading to ARDS

Regardless, as fluid begins to leak into the alveoli (the air sacs of the lungs), the person will have difficulty taking in oxygen into the body and expelling carbon dioxide out of the body. At first, this will result in tachypnea, or rapid and shallow breathing. If a doctor were to listen to the person's lungs at this point they would notice a crackling noise.

As fluid continues to build in the lungs, the person will develop hypoxemia, a low oxygen content in blood, which will cause a paler appearance to their skin. They may also develop cyanosis, a bluish tint to the body, especially in the lips and nail beds. The lack of oxygen will also cause serious fatigue. The person will also have severe dyspnea, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. They'll will understandably become anxious and agitated as they gasp for air even when simply resting.

ARDS: Treatment

Treating ARDS is by no means a simple matter. The doctors have to first figure out what caused ARDS to occur in the first place. So, let's say they find out that a bacterial infection of the blood is the cause. In that case, they will need to use antibiotics to prevent any further damage to the lungs.

The second thing that needs to be addressed is oxygen delivery. The person needs to get as much oxygen as possible until the lungs have healed. Oxygen can be delivered to the patient via a face mask and, in more severe cases, from a ventilator that will force oxygen into the lungs. However, too much oxygen can actually lead to ARDS itself, so the delivery of the oxygen has to be carefully monitored.

Other supportive measures are used as necessary, such as intravenous (by vein) delivery of fluid to prevent dehydration as well as intravenous delivery of nutritional substances if the person cannot eat normally.

Lesson Summary

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is vital so that prompt treatment can begin and death avoided. Some of the important signs and symptoms of ARDS include:

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