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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Discover the alarming truth about Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and how it can affect your health in unexpected ways.

USMLE Guide: Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)


Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is a severe lung condition characterized by rapid onset of respiratory failure, resulting from an injury to the lungs. It is a life-threatening condition that requires prompt diagnosis and treatment. This USMLE guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of ARDS, including its etiology, clinical presentation, diagnostic approach, management, and prognosis.


ARDS can be caused by various factors, including:

  1. Direct Lung Injury
    • Pneumonia (bacterial, viral, or fungal)
    • Aspiration of gastric contents
    • Near-drowning
    • Inhalation of toxic gases
  2. Indirect Lung Injury
    • Sepsis
    • Severe trauma or multiple fractures
    • Pancreatitis
    • Transfusion-related acute lung injury (TRALI)
    • Drug overdose (e.g., heroin, aspirin overdose)


ARDS involves an inflammatory response within the lungs, leading to increased permeability of the alveolar-capillary membrane. This increased permeability causes protein-rich fluid to leak into the alveoli, impairing oxygen exchange. The resulting hypoxemia and impaired lung compliance lead to respiratory failure.

Clinical Presentation

Patients with ARDS typically present with:

  • Rapid onset of dyspnea and tachypnea
  • Severe hypoxemia (refractory to supplemental oxygen)
  • Increased work of breathing
  • Cyanosis
  • Bilateral diffuse crackles on auscultation
  • Respiratory distress (use of accessory muscles, nasal flaring)
  • Confusion or altered mental status (in severe cases)

Diagnostic Approach

The diagnosis of ARDS is based on the following criteria:

  1. Timing: Onset of respiratory symptoms within one week of a known clinical insult or new/worsening respiratory symptoms.
  2. Chest Imaging: Bilateral opacities on chest X-ray or CT scan that are not fully explained by other conditions (e.g., effusions, lobar/lung collapse, nodules).
  3. Origin of Edema: Respiratory failure not fully explained by heart failure or fluid overload.
  4. Oxygenation: Hypoxemia defined by a PaO2/FiO2 ratio ≤ 300 mmHg on a positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) ≥ 5 cm H2O.


The management of ARDS involves both supportive care and treatment of the underlying cause:

  1. Supportive Care

    • oxygen supplementation to maintain oxygen saturation > 88% or PaO2 > 55 mmHg.
    • mechanical ventilation with low tidal volumes (6 mL/kg predicted body weight) and plateau pressures < 30 cm H2O.
    • Positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) to improve oxygenation and prevent alveolar collapse.
    • Prone positioning to optimize ventilation-perfusion matching in severe cases.
    • Sedation and analgesia to minimize patient-ventilator asynchrony.
  2. Treatment of Underlying Cause

    • Antibiotics for suspected or confirmed infections.
    • Removal of the inciting factor (e.g., gastric lavage for aspiration, cessation of drug use).
    • Source control in cases of sepsis (e.g., drainage of abscesses, debridement).


The prognosis of ARDS depends on several factors, including the severity of the underlying cause, the patient's comorbidities, and the response to treatment. The mortality rate varies but is generally around 30-40%. Complications may include multiorgan failure, ventilator-associated pneumonia, and barotrauma.


ARDS is a life-threatening condition characterized by respiratory failure resulting from lung injury. Prompt recognition and appropriate management are crucial for improving patient outcomes. Understanding the etiology, clinical presentation, diagnostic approach, and management strategies discussed in this USMLE guide will aid in the effective management of ARDS patients.

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