Severe Respiratory Distress- 10 Things You Should Know

Severe Respiratory Distress- 10 Things You Should Know

Severe or acute respiratory distress commonly referred to as ARDS is a medical condition that occurs when the lungs are unable to pump enough oxygen to organs such as the kidneys and the brain. The cause is because fluids collect in the lungs and make it hard for them to work properly. ARDS is a fatal condition, and the symptoms often develop within one to two days. If left untreated it can lead to death. Below are ten facts you need to know about the condition.

Risk Factors

According to estimates from the American Lung Association, 30 to 50 percent of the people diagnosed with ARDS do not survive. However, the risk is not similar for all the people as there are some who have a higher possibility of developing the condition. However, this does not mean people who are healthy do not get diagnosed with ARDS. Most of the people diagnosed with ARDS are usually patients admitted to hospital suffering from another health condition or those with the below characteristics:

Older people 65 years and above
Those with chronic lung diseases
Those with a history of alcoholism
Those With A Higher Risk Of Suffering From ARDS
The condition is life-threatening more so to people who are:
Have liver failure
With toxic shock
With a history of smoking or alcoholism


The key symptoms of ARDS include low blood pressure, difficulty breathing or rapid air gasps, general fatigue, dry hacking cough, discolored nails and skins due to the minimal supply of oxygen, mental confusion, headache and shortness of breath.

Cause Of ARDS

ARDS is caused when the small blood vessels in the lungs are damaged. Fluids from the damaged vessels leak to the air sacs in the lungs where blood is oxygenated. This leads to less air and oxygen reaching the blood.

Some of the reasons why the tiny blood vessels in the lungs are damaged include:
Severe infection of the blood or sepsis
Severe infection of the lungs due to illnesses such as Pneumonia
Inhalation of toxic substances and materials including vomit, smoke, salt water, chemicals among others
Overdosing on some drugs such as tricyclic depressants or sedatives
Fatal Injury to the chest or head for instance, when one is involved in a car accident that can cause heavy bleeding.


No one test can be used to diagnose if one has ARDS. However, if you suspect someone is suffering from the condition, it is paramount that you take them to the hospital immediately or call 911 as the condition is a medical emergency. Once at the hospital, doctors will get the patient’s blood pressure, perform a physical exam, do a chest x-ray or perform an electrocardiogram or an echocardiogram, examine the airwaves or order a CT scan to diagnose the problem. The doctors will also check the patient’s medical history.

One of the key symptoms of ARDS is low blood oxygen and low blood pressure. This is why the doctors check the blood pressure and perform a physical exam. Echocardiogram and electrocardiogram are performed to rule out any heart disease. The CT scan and the x-ray will show if the air sacs have fluids. If the fluid is present, this is a positive confirmation of the condition. Another confirmation can be done through a lung biopsy


Once the diagnosis is complete, the patient is put on oxygen support to ensure sufficient flow of oxygen to the vital organs. An air mask or breathing tube is used to allow the patient get enough oxygen. In some cases, a ventilator may be used. Another means that a doctor can use to ensure you get enough oxygen is the use of Positive End-Expiratory pressure. This is a technique that minimizes the pressure on the lungs boosting the functioning of the lungs and also preventing lung injury which is common when a ventilator is used.

Other Forms Of Treatment

The doctor will also try to manage the fluids in the patient’s lungs and body to ensure a balance as too much fluid leads to more distress in the lungs while too little fluid can strain the heart and other organs.

To prevent further bleeding and clotting, oral medicines will also be prescribed or administrated via IV fluids. Patients are often advised to be calm even in this condition as excitement or agitation increases the oxygen demand in the body. If the patient cannot remain calm, then the doctor will prescribe drugs that can keep the patient calm. It is not uncommon for patients with ARDS to suffer from other health conditions including infections, scarring, pneumothorax, or blood clots during their hospital stay.


It is possible to fully recover from ARDS and resume normal activities. While some recover completely, others suffer from long-term health conditions including:

Weakness in the muscles
Shortness of breath
Memory problems

Beyond Recovery

Doctors will advise the patient to quit smoking and reduce alcohol intake and avoid anything that might irritate the lungs. It is also advisable to take occasional flu shots to protect against colds and flu-related diseases such as pneumonia. If you are recovering from the condition, you might need pulmonary rehabilitation which boosts the respiratory system and increases the capacity of the lungs. Some programs include:

Support from family and friends
Lifestyle classes
Exercises that can help you recover


Prevention of ARDS is not fully possible although there are several ways of lowering the risk of getting the health problem

It is advised that in case of any infection, trauma or illness one should seek medical attention
Stop smoking and drinking alcohol as these hinder the proper functioning of the lungs
Get pneumonia and a flu vaccine every five years as this leads to lower lung infections
Remember the chances of surviving ARDS depends on a fast diagnosis of the condition. If you suspect that you have the condition or a loved one seems to show the symptoms discussed above, it is always important to consult an expert.

Bellaire ER in Texas is one such medical facility that offers superior emergency care to such patients, and they will be glad to answer any question you might have on the condition.