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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): Treatment

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This information was reviewed and approved by James K. O'Brien, MD, FACP, FCCP (4/16/2020).

How is of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) treated?

Treating acute respiratory distress syndrome includes addressing any lung damage or other injury, and helping the patient breathe consistently while the lungs heal and the body fights the infection. Treatment can take weeks to months depending on the severity of the infection.

Treatments for ARDS can include:

Supplemental oxygen – ensures the body is getting enough oxygen in the lungs and the blood

Mechanical ventilator – supports the work it takes to breath with ARDS

Sedation—intravenous medications are used to induce sedation or coma, if needed, to help the patient breath

Other medications — antibiotics are used to treat infection, heparin is used to prevent blood clots, Lasix is used to remove extra fluid and other medications can be used to support a patient’s blood pressure

Feeding tube— a short-term feeding tube can be placed through the nose or mouth to deliver nutrition

Prone positioning – periodically placing the patient face down helps the lungs work better


Long-term ARDS Treatment

If a patient needs more than 10-14 days of treatment with a mechanical ventilator, the ICU team may recommend placing a tracheostomy (a small breathing tube inserted in the neck by surgeon) to aid with breathing. A feeding tube can be placed through the abdominal wall called a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG tube) when the patient can’t eat through the mouth.


After the ICU

After discharged from the ICU, the patient will be weak and exhausted, and may sleep for long periods of time. Pulmonary rehabilitation and physical therapy will be helpful to managing breathing, decrease breathlessness, regain strength and increase stamina. The patient may suffer from anxiety and depression and have sleep problems due to the long hospital stay. Malnutrition may be a problem and will need to be addressed by a dietician. The patient can expect to recover in a non-ICU floor of the hospital, a skilled nursing facility and perhaps in a “post-intensive care” specialty clinic. Recovery after being treated for ARDS in an ICU can be weeks to months.

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