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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): Signs & Symptoms

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This information was reviewed and approved by James K. O'Brien, MD, FACP, FCCP (4/15/2020).

What are the signs and symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is caused by a severe inflammatory response in the body when there is a severe infection or after there has been trauma to the body. 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. The lack of oxygen can harm the brain, kidneys, and other internal organs. Most people who develop ARDS are already in the hospital because of another disease or injury.

Because acute respiratory distress syndrome involves internal fluid that fills the lungs’ air sacs, doctors look for common signs (things that are observed) and symptoms (things that are experienced).


Common signs and symptoms of ARDS include:

  • Shortness of Breath (dyspnea) – This is the feeling of being short of breath and having difficulty catching your breath.

  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea) and heartbeat (tachycardia) – Healthy adults take 12 to 20 breaths per minute. More than 20 breaths indicate abnormally rapid breathing (tachypnea). A resting heart rate higher than the normal 60 to 100 beats per minute is called tachycardia.

  • Cough – This cough can be with or without phlegm or mucus.

  • Blue lips and fingernails – A lower oxygen level in the blood causes the lips and fingernails to turn blue.

  • Chest discomfort or pain – This feeling can happen when inhaling.

  • Low blood pressure – Infection, prolonged bed rest or heart problems can lead to lower blood pressure.

  • Confusion – Lack of adequate oxygen to the brain can cause confusion.

  • Pain or discomfort from the area causing ARDS – Pneumonia can cause pain in the lungs or when breathing. Pancreatitis can cause stomach pain. Infections also can cause pain and discomfort on the skin infection and in the urinary tract and more.

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