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What is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) happens when there is a buildup of fluid in your child’s lungs. It is a potentially life-threatening condition. Fluid build-up can restrict oxygen flow to your child’s vital organs, which can cause other serious health problems. ARDS occurs when there is an illness or injury that may affect the lungs either directly or indirectly. The injury may be caused by an accident, surgery, severe pneumonia, infection, inhaling smoke from a fire, or a near drowning.

When to See a Doctor

Most children who get ARDS are already in the hospital under the care of a doctor. If your child is not in the hospital and is experiencing symptoms of ARDS, seek medical treatment immediately. Symptoms of ARDS may be caused by another medical condition.


ARDS is usually caused by illness or injury that may affect your child’s lungs directly or indirectly.

    Direct injuries or illnesses to the lungs include:

    • Pneumonia
    • Aspiration (inhaling stomach contents into the lungs)
    • Near drowning
    • Car accident or injury to the lungs
    • Smoke inhalation

    Indirect injuries or illnesses to your child’s lungs include:

    • Inflammation
    • Sepsis
    • Blood transfusion
    • Serious burns

Diagnosis and Tests

The most common test to diagnose ARDS is a chest x-ray. The x-ray will show fluid in your child’s lungs. Your child’s doctor may recommend other tests to rule out other problems. These tests may include:


There is no direct cure for ARDS. The focus of treatment will be providing support to your child while the lungs heal. The goal is to provide enough oxygen to the blood and organs to prevent further damage to your child’s body.

Common treatments for ARDS include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • Ventilator (in severe cases)
  • Medicine
  • Fluid management
  • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation therapy (in severe cases)


ARDS may be hard to prevent in some patients. Identifying those at risk for developing ARDS is the first line of defense to prevention. Once these patients are identified, prevention strategies can be implemented.


Common symptoms of ARDS include:

  • Shortness of breath/labored breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Muscle fatigue and general weakness
  • Cough (dry, hacking)
  • Fever
  • Increased heart rate
  • Headache
  • Chest Pain
  • Bluish coloring of nails and lips (late sign)