Have you heard the term "ARDS" before? These patients are the sickest of the sick! Here is a guest post that I put together for the "New Nurse Blog" a little bit ago. I feel like it's pretty informative about ARDS including its causes and treatments. Enjoy!

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

What in the world is ARDS?

Have any of you heard a doctor refer to a patient as having “ARDS?”  The first time I heard the term ARDS, I was unfamiliar with the pathophysiology.  Now, I work in a medical ICU and frequently take care of patients who are experiencing this respiratory distress disease process.  I would like to share with you what I have learned.

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome: What is It?

ARDS is a life-threatening form of acute lung injury. There is an initial insult to the alveoli usually caused by either alveolar or vascular damage. This increases the permeability of the capillaries surrounding the alveoli and causes protein-rich fluid to fill the alveolar sacs. This also results in damage to the alveolar cells decreasing surfactant production leading to alveolar collapse. If your alveoli are full of fluid and collapsed, how in the world are you going to get the oxygen that you need? You can see how a patient’s respiratory status can decline very quickly!

According to Medscape, the diagnosis of ARDS is defined by the ratio of the partial pressure of oxygen in the patient’s arterial blood (PaO2) to the fraction of oxygen in the inspired air (FiO2). In ARDS, the PaO2/FiO2 ratio is less than 200, and in acute lung injury, it is less than 300. It is amazing to watch someone admitted to your unit go from a state of respiratory distress to being on maximum support on the ventilator in a matter of a few hours.

What Causes It?

ARDS can be caused by direct or indirect insult. According to NYU Langone Medical Center, the direct causes include chest trauma, aspiration of stomach contents, obstructed airways, high altitude disease, tuberculosis, oxygen toxicity, radiation, cardiopulmonary bypass, burns, and breathing smoke, chemicals, or salt water. Indirect causes include severe infection, massive blood transfusion, pneumonia, shock, burn, head trauma, pancreatitis, and overdoses of alcohol or certain drugs.

Alveoli of a healthy patient (above right) and an ARDS patient (below right)

Alveoli of a healthy patient (above right) and an ARDS patient (below right)

The most common cause of ARDS that we saw in my ICU this last winter was the swine flu.  Many of our patients did not survive which made for a very depressing season.  They would require maximum ventilator support for weeks! Family and staff would watch as the patients slowly went into multi-system organ failure despite our interventions.

What Do We Do About It?

There are many interventions we perform for these patients. They are very time intensive and patient status requires constant monitoring. Our main goal is to increase oxygenation. How do we do that?

Increase PEEP

Increase that PEEP! The vast majority of ARDS patients require mechanical ventilation with a large amount of ventilatory support. One of the settings that can be adjusted depending on the patient is the pulmonary end expiratory pressure (PEEP). Ever wonder how you can get the air knocked out of you? There is a reserve of air left in your lungs even when you have exhaled as much as you can. This is the PEEP. In patients with ARDS, the PEEP is turned up just about as high as you can go without causing a pneumothorax (which can happen). This helps to keep those alveoli inflated. There is always a risk of causing barotrauma (damage) to your alveoli when you increase the PEEP as high as is necessary to maintain oxygenation. We also give low tidal volumes in an attempt to decrease damage to the alveoli.


Can’t oxygenate? Paralyze! Patients are sedated while on such high ventilator settings. Despite this, patients can still be breathing out of sync with the ventilator. In these extreme cases, patients will be placed on a continuous paralyzing IV medication. Our standard medication is Cys-Atricurium. This allows the patient’s body to be completely relaxed and let the ventilator do the work. In order to be sure the patient is at an adequate paralyzed level, we perform a “train-of-four” every few hours which provides four small shocks to the patient. Here’s all of my tips on how to perform the train of four monitoring. We don’t want our patients overparalyzed…who knew there was such a thing?!


If these interventions aren’t working, another alternative is to prone the patient, meaning you flip them onto their bellies. A lot of the time we would prone them for 12 hours and then have them supine for 12 hours. According to a study found in the Canadian Respiratory Journal, “During prone positioning, ventilation is improved due to changes in pleural pressure (PPL) and the amount of lung atelectasis present. PPL is the sum of all forces acting to compress the alveolus and includes the weight of tissue above the alveolus and the transmitted pressure across the diaphragm from the abdomen. Simplistically, an alveolus will remain open when the intra-alveolar pressure exceeds PPL. When a patient with ARDS is placed prone, the dorsal lung is no longer subject to high PPL and dorsal lung atelectasis decreases.” It is easier for the lung to open up and, therefore, easier to oxygenate the patient.

I have taken care of prone patients and it definitely works! A couple things to note with caring for these patients, it can be very dangerous when you actually switch the patient from supine to prone. Be careful of their endotracheal tube and central lines!!! Also, when a patient is prone, be sure to still reposition them if they can tolerate it hemodynamically. We called it “swimming” the patient. We rotated the one arm from being up near the patient’s face down to being at their side. We also tucked a pillow under one of their hips and rotated their head from right to left. I always did this with the help of a fellow nurse or respiratory therapist so they could manage the airway while I turned their face.

So  What Happens to These Patients?

If a patient survives ARDS, there is a high chance they will have developed pulmonary fibrosis.  One patient I cared for, who despite having overcome the acute phase of ARDS, could not maintain their oxygenation because they developed severe fibrosis. It often requires lifelong medications and oxygen therapy to manage fibrosis.

Other relevant articles include:

AuthorCourtney Tracy