Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

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1- Introduction

2- Physiological  Overview

3- Symptoms

4- Treatment


Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a condition that can result from either a direct or indirect pulmonary insult. It is defined as respiratory failure of acute onset characterized by severe hypoxemia that is refractory to treatment with supplemental oxygen, bilateral infiltrates on chest x-ray, and no evidence of heart failure. Individuals with conditions such as pneumonia, aspiration, near-drowning, and smoke inhalation or a systemic insult such as sepsis, multiple trauma, or burns are susceptible to triggering this process.

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Physiological Overview

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is a severe form of acute lung injury characterized by sudden and profound respiratory failure. It is often a complication of another serious illness or injury rather than a standalone condition. Here’s a physiological overview of ARDS:

  1. Pathophysiology: ARDS typically develops in response to a direct injury to the lungs (such as pneumonia, aspiration of gastric contents, or inhalation injury) or as a result of a systemic inflammatory response (sepsis, trauma, pancreatitis). The injury leads to inflammation and increased permeability of the alveolar-capillary membrane.

  2. Alveolar Damage and Inflammation: The initial insult triggers an inflammatory cascade within the lungs. This inflammation causes damage to the alveolar epithelium (lining of the air sacs) and the endothelium of the pulmonary capillaries. As a result, fluid, proteins, and inflammatory cells leak into the alveoli.

  3. Increased Permeability: The increased permeability of the alveolar-capillary membrane leads to the accumulation of protein-rich fluid in the alveoli (pulmonary edema). This impairs gas exchange, reducing the lung’s ability to oxygenate the blood and eliminate carbon dioxide.

  4. Surfactant Dysfunction: Surfactant, a substance produced by the lungs to reduce surface tension in the alveoli and prevent collapse, becomes dysfunctional in ARDS. This contributes to alveolar collapse (atelectasis) and further impairs gas exchange.

  5. Hypoxemia and Respiratory Failure: The hallmark feature of ARDS is severe hypoxemia (low oxygen levels in the blood) that does not improve with supplemental oxygen. This hypoxemia results from ventilation-perfusion mismatch, shunting of blood through poorly oxygenated areas of the lungs, and diffusion impairment due to the thickened alveolar membrane.

  6. Clinical Presentation: Patients with ARDS typically present with rapid onset of severe dyspnea, tachypnea (rapid breathing), and hypoxemia. As the condition progresses, respiratory distress worsens, often requiring mechanical ventilation to support breathing.

  7. Chest Imaging: Chest X-ray or CT scan may show diffuse bilateral infiltrates (whiteout appearance) due to pulmonary edema and inflammation affecting multiple areas of the lungs.

  8. Management: Treatment of ARDS focuses on supportive care and addressing the underlying cause:

    • Mechanical Ventilation: Patients with severe ARDS often require intubation and mechanical ventilation with low tidal volumes to minimize lung injury (lung-protective ventilation).
    • Oxygen Therapy: High concentrations of oxygen are often needed to maintain adequate oxygenation.
    • Fluid Management: Fluid balance is carefully monitored to avoid fluid overload, which can worsen pulmonary edema.
    • Treatment of Underlying Cause: Addressing the primary illness or injury that triggered ARDS is crucial.
    • Prone Positioning: Turning patients onto their stomach (prone positioning) can improve oxygenation in some cases by redistributing ventilation to better-perfused lung regions.
    • Medications: May include sedatives for patient comfort, neuromuscular blocking agents to facilitate ventilation, and sometimes medications to modulate inflammation or pulmonary vascular tone.
  9. Prognosis: The prognosis of ARDS depends on the severity of the underlying illness, the extent of lung injury, and the patient’s overall health. Mortality rates can be high, especially in severe cases, despite advances in critical care.

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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is characterized by sudden and severe respiratory failure, typically following a serious injury or illness. The symptoms of ARDS can develop rapidly and progress quickly. Here are the key symptoms associated with ARDS:

  1. Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath):

    • Severe and sudden onset of difficulty breathing is a hallmark symptom of ARDS. Patients may describe feeling breathless even at rest or with minimal exertion.
  2. Rapid Breathing (Tachypnea):

    • Increased respiratory rate is common as the body tries to compensate for decreased oxygen levels in the blood.
  3. Low Oxygen Levels (Hypoxemia):

    • ARDS leads to profound hypoxemia, where the oxygen levels in the blood are significantly lower than normal. This hypoxemia does not respond well to supplemental oxygen alone.
  4. Cyanosis:

    • Cyanosis, a bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes, may be observed due to the inadequate oxygenation of blood.
  5. Labored Breathing (Respiratory Distress):

    • Patients may exhibit signs of respiratory distress, such as flaring of the nostrils, use of accessory muscles (neck muscles), or an increased effort to breathe.
  6. Cough:

    • A persistent cough may be present, often dry or productive of frothy sputum due to inflammation and pulmonary edema.
  7. Fatigue and Weakness:

    • As the respiratory effort increases and oxygenation worsens, patients may experience fatigue, weakness, and decreased ability to perform daily activities.
  8. Confusion or Altered Mental Status:

    • Severe hypoxemia can lead to confusion or changes in mental status due to inadequate oxygen delivery to the brain.
  9. Chest Pain:

    • Chest discomfort or pain may occur, especially if the underlying cause of ARDS involves conditions such as pneumonia or trauma.
  10. Fever:

    • In cases where infection is the triggering factor for ARDS, fever may be present along with other signs of systemic inflammation.


The treatment of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is aimed at supporting respiratory function, managing the underlying cause, and preventing further lung injury. Here’s an overview of the treatment strategies commonly used for ARDS:

  1. Supportive Care:

    • Mechanical Ventilation: Patients with ARDS often require mechanical ventilation to support breathing. Ventilator settings are adjusted to provide lung-protective ventilation, which includes low tidal volumes (to minimize further lung injury), appropriate positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) to recruit collapsed alveoli and maintain oxygenation, and plateau pressure limitation to prevent barotrauma.
    • Oxygen Therapy: High levels of supplemental oxygen are administered to maintain adequate oxygenation, although careful monitoring is essential to avoid oxygen toxicity.
  2. Treatment of Underlying Cause:

    • Identifying and treating the underlying condition that triggered ARDS is crucial. This may involve antibiotics for pneumonia, supportive care for sepsis, or addressing trauma or other causes as appropriate.
  3. Fluid Management:

    • Fluid balance is carefully managed to avoid fluid overload, which can exacerbate pulmonary edema and impair gas exchange. Conservative fluid strategies are generally preferred unless hypovolemia is present.
  4. Prone Positioning:

    • Prone positioning involves turning the patient onto their stomach to improve oxygenation by redistributing ventilation to better-perfused lung areas. This technique has been shown to benefit some patients with ARDS.
  5. Medications:

    • Neuromuscular Blocking Agents: These medications may be used to temporarily paralyze the patient’s muscles to allow for better synchronization with the ventilator and reduce ventilator-induced lung injury.
    • Sedatives and Analgesics: Patients on mechanical ventilation may require sedatives to keep them comfortable and reduce anxiety, as well as analgesics to manage pain.
    • Vasopressors and Inotropes: In cases of shock or severe sepsis, medications may be used to support blood pressure and cardiac function.
    • Steroids: The role of corticosteroids in ARDS remains controversial but may be considered in certain situations, such as if there is evidence of refractory hypoxemia despite other treatments.
  6. Nutritional Support:

    • Providing adequate nutrition is important for maintaining strength and supporting recovery. Enteral nutrition is generally preferred over parenteral nutrition if feasible.
  7. Prevention of Complications:

    • Preventing complications such as ventilator-associated pneumonia, deep vein thrombosis, and stress ulcers is essential. Measures include strict infection control practices, prophylactic anticoagulation, and stress ulcer prophylaxis.
  8. Monitoring and Supportive Therapy:

    • Continuous monitoring of vital signs, oxygenation levels, and ventilator parameters is critical. Patients with ARDS require close attention and frequent reassessment of their clinical status.
  9. Rehabilitation and Recovery:

    • Once stabilized, patients may benefit from early mobilization, pulmonary rehabilitation, and multidisciplinary support to promote recovery of lung function and overall well-being.
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