HomePatientsLung Disease Week at the ATS2011ARDS ▶ General Information about ARDS
General Information about ARDS


What is ARDS?

ARDS stands for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and represents one of the most common causes of death and disability.  ARDS is a disease that affects the lungs of people of all ages, from infants to the elderly.  It causes severe lung damage with inflammation and results in lungs that don’t work well in large part because they are filled with fluid.  Having ARDS generally means that patients require a form of life support called mechanical ventilation – a machine that breathes for them.  Mechanical ventilation is usually provided in the intensive care unit (or ICU) of a hospital and requires that patients have a tube in their mouth or directly into their windpipe that prevents them from being able to speak while the tube is in place.  Patients with ARDS may have to be on mechanical ventilation anywhere from a few days to a few months depending on how severe it is and what other organs are affected.  For patients who survive ARDS, there can be a prolonged period of rehabilitation when patients need help and training to regain their strength and function.

What causes ARDS and who is at risk?

ARDS is a form of injury to the lungs that can be caused by a number of diseases and types of trauma, including pneumonia and other types of infections, automobile collisions, and diseases that cause inflammation like pancreatitis.  ARDS can occur in patients of all ages and it can occur in patients with underlying chronic illnesses or people with no prior medical problems at all.

What happens to people who develop ARDS?

ARDS is a common cause of mortality and morbidity.  The mortality from ARDS has declined dramatically in the past 40 years, from over 70% to less than 40%, However, ARDS still has a very high risk of mortality with 30-35% of patients with ARDS dying as a result of ARDS and complications of ARDS. 

Patients who survive ARDS can return to their prior health or they can be affected by severe disability that can include limitations in lung function, severe muscle weakness, decreases in their ability to think and remember, and psychological effects such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

How do we prevent and treat ARDS?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for ARDS and no established way to prevent ARDS.  However, we have made many exciting advances in our understanding of the causes of ARDS and improvements in our treatments for and support of patients with ARDS that have resulted in the dramatic improvements in survival we have seen.  For example, we have learned much about the way we provide mechanical ventilation for patients with ARDS and these advances have been part of the reason for the improvements in survival.  In addition, we have learned important aspects of the supportive medical and nursing care we provide that help prevent secondary infections in critically ill patients with ARDS – secondary infections that were often the proximal cause of death in these patients.

What can we do to decrease the impact of ARDS?

Much research is needed to decrease the dramatic affect ARDS has on the lives of patients and their families.  We need research into ways to prevent ARDS among patients with infections and other risk factors.  We need research into treatments for patients with ARDS to decrease the effect on inflammation and infection on their lung and to speed the body’s ability to heal after developing ARDS.  Finally, we need research into ways to prevent some of the long-term consequences of ARDS on brain function, nerve and muscle function, lung function, and mental health.  Given all the progress that has been made in the last 40 years, an investment in ARDS research seems highly likely to pay off for making important breakthroughs in the next 10 years.

Source:  J. Randall Curtis, MD, MPH  ATS Immediate Past President

Four Facts About ARDS
  1. Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is defined as an acute process, which results in moderate to severe loss of lung function.
  2. Approximately 150,000-200,000 Americans will be diagnosed with ARDS each year.  Worldwide, that number is approximately 2.2 million
  3. There is no known prevention for ARDS at the present time.  Nor is there any known cure.  ARDS patients are treated with supportive care, most often in the Intensive Care Unit.
  4. Although ARDS is always a critical syndrome, more than half of the patients who are diagnosed with ARDS survive.