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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome


Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a sudden and very serious illness that affects your lungs. ARDS occurs when the lungs become swollen and filled with fluid. The fluid causes severe shortness of breath and may lead to respiratory failure. Respiratory failure means you cannot breathe well enough to get oxygen to the cells of your body. ARDS is an emergency and immediate treatment is needed.



  • Pain medicine: You may need medicine to take away or decrease pain.
    • Learn how to take your medicine. Ask what medicine and how much you should take. Be sure you know how, when, and how often to take it.
    • Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine. Tell caregivers if your pain does not decrease.
    • Pain medicine can make you dizzy or sleepy. Prevent falls by calling someone when you get out of bed or if you need help.
  • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to fight or prevent an infection caused by bacteria. Always take your antibiotics exactly as ordered by your healthcare provider. Do not stop taking your medicine unless directed by your healthcare provider. Never save antibiotics or take leftover antibiotics that were given to you for another illness.
  • Take your medicine as directed. Contact your healthcare provider if you think your medicine is not helping or if you have side effects. Tell him or her if you are allergic to any medicine. Keep a list of the medicines, vitamins, and herbs you take. Include the amounts, and when and why you take them. Bring the list or the pill bottles to follow-up visits. Carry your medicine list with you in case of an emergency.

Follow up with your healthcare provider as directed:

You may need to return for more tests. Your healthcare provider may need to measure the amount of air in your lungs as you breathe. This will show how well your lungs are working. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

Self care:

  • Breathing exercises: You may feel short of breath when you are active. The following are breathing exercises that may help you breathe more easily:
    • Breathe out with pursed or puckered lips (like playing the trumpet).
    • Breathe using your diaphragm. Put one hand on your abdomen and breathe in, causing your hand to move outward or upward. Your lungs will have more room to get bigger and to take in more air.
  • Avoid the spread of germs:
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Carry germ-killing gel with you. You can use the gel to clean your hands when there is no soap and water available.
    • Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless you have washed your hands first.
    • Always cover your mouth when you cough. Cough into a tissue or your shirtsleeve so you do not spread germs from your hands.
    • Try to avoid people who have a cold or the flu. If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible.
  • Do not smoke: If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. You are more likely to have heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and other health problems if you smoke. You will improve your health and the health of those around you if you quit. If you smoke, ask for information about how to stop.
  • Do not drink alcohol: Alcohol causes your lungs and heart to work harder. This can make your condition worse.
  • Get plenty of exercise: Talk to your healthcare provider about the best exercise plan for you. Exercise can decrease your blood pressure and improve your health.

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a fever.
  • You are lightheaded, dizzy, sweaty, or nauseated after you take your medicine.
  • You have increased swelling in your legs, feet, or abdomen.
  • You are wheezing (high-pitched noise when you breathe).
  • You are coughing up bloody sputum.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have trouble breathing or shortness of breath.
  • You have a fast heart beat and your chest hurts.
  • You feel so dizzy that you have trouble standing up.
  • Your lips, skin or nail beds are blue.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (Discharge Care)

Associated drugs

Micromedex® Care Notes

Mayo Clinic Reference