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ARDS

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a life-threatening lung condition. It develops rapidly and drastically reduces the amount of oxygen your blood gets from your lungs.

Your lungs are filled with air sacs, which transfer oxygen from the air in your lungs to your blood. If you have ARDS, fluid leaks from the blood vessels in your airway into these tiny air sacs, limiting how much oxygen that can move from the air sacs to your blood. Other air sacs become unstable and collapse, also limiting their ability to function. Your body’s organs depend on the oxygen and nutrients blood brings. If your blood does not have enough oxygen to meet your organs’ needs, they stop functioning properly. This may lead to failure of additional organs.

Although ARDS can be triggered by several causes, including trauma or aspiration, the most common cause of ARDS is sepsis. Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s often deadly response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.

Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.

Signs and symptoms of ARDS

The symptoms of ARDS are typical of someone who is having a hard time breathing. This includes:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty taking breaths
  • Low blood pressure
  • Organ failure
  • Confusion
  • Extreme fatigue

ARDS is a life-threatening condition and a medical emergency. If you are experiencing signs and symptoms of ARDS, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Treatment for ARDS

ARDS is a medical emergency. Before anything else, it is vital that you get more oxygen in your blood. A mask placed over your mouth and nose can supply you with oxygen, but if you are having too much trouble breathing, you may need to be intubated. To do this, a doctor places a tube into your trachea (airway), usually through your mouth. This tube is then attached to mechanical ventilator that will help you breathe by pushing air directly into your lungs.

Once the initial medical emergency is under control, the doctors then need to learn why you developed ARDS and treat the cause. If the cause was sepsis, this treatment would include antibiotics to treat the bacterial infection, intravenous fluids, and possibly medications called vasopressors to help raise your blood pressure. Intravenous fluids are important, but the doctors have to be careful not to give you too much. You need fluids to keep up your blood pressure, which allows your blood to flow through your blood vessels. Too much fluid could cause more fluid build-up in your lungs.

Complications

If you’ve had ARDS, you could be left with some lasting effects, such as scarring in the lung tissue and abnormal lung function.

Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.

Reviewed November 1, 2021.

Read Personal Stories of Sepsis and ARDS

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Carol Mulkern

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I had been feeling a bit “run down” as my Mom had just died. Two weeks later I went to an urgent care facility as I had pain when I urinated. I was prescribed antibiotics but they didn’t seem to work after 7 days. I reluctantly agreed to go to the local ED as my daughter thought I seemed “off”. The previous evening I had had the cold sweats as I was literally shivering out loud. (Sepsis and Urinary Tract Infections) Upon my arrival to the ED, vitals, medical history, urine spec, and chest X-ray were done. While waiting for ... Read Full Story

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October 2019 my family and I had come away to my in-laws’ caravan. The plan was to take our 4 year old out for the day. Monday we arrived, by the Wednesday I had began feeling poorly. I didn’t want to let my son down so put on a brave face and off we went for our day out. The train journey I felt shivery and sick. I remember looking for handles on the walls to hold on to when we walked around. When we got back I went straight to bed, feeling feverish thinking I had the flu coming. ... Read Full Story

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It’s extremely difficult to shortly summarize the most traumatic 6 months of my life, but here it goes. 2015 was supposed to be the best year of my life. And it started out that way at first. I was a young, healthy, 26-year-old ICU nurse working in a level 1 trauma center. I had just gotten married that summer, started my first semester of nurse practitioner school in the fall, and found out I was pregnant shortly after that. Little did I know that the year would end with me fighting for my life. After two weeks of complications, it ... Read Full Story

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Ada G.

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Late in the day on March 14, 2018, our little 2 yr old, Ada got a fever and began throwing up. We gave her Tylenol and Pedialyte that night and took her to her PCP early the next morning. The doctor said there was a little stomach bug going around and prescribed Zofran and said come back in 48 hrs if it persisted. 2 days later as we prepared to take her back in, she had a febrile seizure. We called 911 and they transported her to the local hospital. In the ED they had difficulty drawing blood, her pulse ... Read Full Story

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ARDS

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a life-threatening lung condition. It develops rapidly and drastically reduces the amount of oxygen your blood gets from your lungs.