Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): Causes Make an Appointment Refer a Patient Ask a Question Reviewed by James K. O'Brien, MD, FACP, FCCP (April 16, 2020) What Causes Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)? Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a potentially life-threatening injury to the lungs. ARDS is caused by a severe inflammatory response in your body when there is a severe infection or after trauma. Inflammation is the body’s way of signaling the immune system to protect and heal. This inflammation causes fluid to leak into the lungs, which makes it extremely difficult to breathe and decreases the amount of oxygen going into the bloodstream. Most people who develop ARDS are already in the hospital because of another disease or injury. The most common signs and symptoms of ARDS are shortness of breath, rapid breathing and rapid heartbeat. Other symptoms can include cough with or without mucus, blue lips or fingernails, chest pain during breathing, extreme fatigue and low blood pressure. Common Causes of ARDS Sepsis The most common cause of ARDS is sepsis. Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening illness that is usually caused by a severe infection in the lungs (pneumonia), kidneys or bladder (urinary tract infection or UTI), gallbladder or bile, intestines or the skin (cellulitis). When the body fights infection it uses a range of proteins and chemicals produced by the immune system. Severe infections can overstimulate the body’s immune system, which can produce too many proteins and chemicals that overwhelm the body in addition to fighting infection. Other Causes Other causes of ARDS can include inhaling (aspirating) stomach contents from vomiting, severe trauma or head injury, near drowning, smoke or chemical inhalation (some recreational drugs such as crack cocaine and methamphetamine can cause ARDS), severe pancreatitis, severe burns and large volume blood transfusions. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): Signs & Symptoms Clinical Trials For more than 100 years, National Jewish Health has been committed to finding new treatments and cures for diseases. Search our clinical trials.