Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

ARDS is a life-threatening condition in which the lungs become severely inflamed and cannot provide the body with enough oxygen.

What causes ARDS?

ARDS happens when the lungs become severely inflamed. Most people who develop ARDS are already in hospital, as it usually follows a serious illness or injury. ARDS can be triggered by:

  • an infection such as pneumonia, severe flu, or coronavirus - it’s thought around 70% of people with coronavirus needing treatment in intensive care will develop ARDS
  • blood poisoning (sepsis)
  • inhaling vomit, smoke or toxic chemicals
  • a severe chest injury
  • near drowning
  • acute pancreatitis – a serious condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time
  • an adverse reaction to a blood transfusion.

You’re more at risk of ARDS if you have a history of smoking, heavy drinking, and if you are very overweight.

Although ARDS is usually a complication of an existing serious health condition, this isn’t always the case. It can start quickly because of an infection or if someone inhales their vomit (breathes vomit into their lungs).

What are the symptoms of ARDS?

ARDS can develop quickly. Symptoms of ARDS include:

  • severe shortness of breath
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • tiredness, drowsiness or confusion
  • feeling faint.

Call 999 if:

You or someone else has severe breathing problems.

How is ARDS treated?

You’ll usually be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) where you will use a machine called a ventilator to help you breathe. ARDS is responsible for 1 in 10 hospital admissions to ICUs.

Treatment for ARDS is usually supportive (focusing on helping you breathe). The specific cause of your ARDS will be treated too.

Recovering from ARDS and long-term outlook

If you have ARDS, the length of your stay in hospital will depend on what caused your ARDS. It may be several weeks or months before you’re well enough to leave hospital.

The outcome of ARDS is often linked to the underlying illness or injury. As many of these are often very serious, around a third of people who develop ARDS die, although not often from ARDS itself. Some people who recover from ARDS may continue to have complications, such as nerve and muscle damage which causes pain and weakness.

Being in hospital on a ventilator can weaken your muscles. Following ARDS, some people develop problems with their mental health, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression once they recover. If your mental health has been affected by ARDS, we have more information you can read on looking after your mental health.

For more advice about ARDS, call our friendly Helpline team on 0300 222 5800, 9am-5pm, Mon-Fri (excluding Bank Holidays).

Get support

Call our Helpline for support with your condition. Get advice on your medicines, symptoms or travelling with a lung condition, or just call us to say hello.

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