Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
A Guide for Family and Friends
What Is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome?
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) is a form of lung failure. This lung failure can
result from a number of problems such as infection, shock and trauma. Some problems linked
with ARDS are: pneumonia, fractures, burns, head injuries, many blood transfusions, organ
transplants, and trauma. In ARDS, the lungs become “leaky”. Air sacs in the lungs become
filled with fluid. The extra fluid makes the lungs become “stiff”. Breathing and oxygen transfer
Care of the Patient with ARDS
Your family member or friend will be in an intensive care unit (ICU). The patient will be
watched closely 24 hours a day by nurses, doctors, and respiratory therapists.
The patient will be a breathing tube placed either in his mouth or the nose. This tube goes
down the throat, past the vocal cords, and into the large airways of the lungs. The breathing tube
(or ET tube) is connected to a breathing machine by long hoses.
Ventilator or breathing machine
This machine pushes air with oxygen in and out of the lungs. It is needed to keep the lungs and
its air sacs open. This helps oxygen to get into the blood and carbon dioxide to get out. The
breathing machine also takes over the work of breathing so that the lungs can rest and have time
While the breathing tube is in place, it will be cleaned out when mucus builds up. To do this, a
small tube is put into the breathing tube and the mucus is sucked out. This is called suctioning.
You may be asked to leave the bedside when this is done.
Having a breathing tube in place can be scary. The patient will not be able to talk. He may feel
short of breath, even though he is getting plenty of air. We treat anxiety with sedatives when
needed. Patients at times may try to pull the breathing tube out. Because this breathing machine
is needed, the staff may need to restrain the patient’s hands with soft restraints for his own
Sometimes the patient wants to breathe faster than the machine. This fast breathing makes it
hard to rest the lungs. Sometimes the doctors use a drug called a paralytic to keep the patient
from breathing too much. If this drug is used, your friend or family member will not be able to
move or open his eyes. Once the drug is stopped, the patient will be able to move and open his
eyes again. For comfort, other drugs, such as sedatives and pain medicines are given when a
patient is on a breathing machine. Members of the health care team are always here to answer
any of your questions.
Fluids, drugs, and nutrition are given into the blood through a thin plastic tube called an IV) into
the vein) line. It is common for a patient to have many IV lines. Most IV lines are on pumps
That report the exact amount the patient receives each hour. Ask the nurse any question you may
have about IV’s.
How Can I make my visit helpful?
Because your family member or friend can not meet his basic need for oxygen, the patient needs
to depend on others and on equipment in order to survive. This can cause a great feeling of loss
of control and increased feelings of dependency. It is helpful for you and staff to talk to the
patient and tell him that he is being taken good care of and is being watched all of the time.
When you come to visit, you may hold the patient’s hand and talk to the patient. The patient
may or may not be able to respond to you because of the medicines. We assume the patient can
hear what is being said. A familiar voice and touch are calming.
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome can be a serious problem seen with many diseases and
injuries. Many recent advances have been made in the treatment of ARDS. Because of our
experienced staff and advanced technology, we are able to provide excellent care.
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 5/2016. University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#4232.