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Pulmonary Sciences & Critical Care Medicine

University Colorado Denver - Anschutz Medical Campus Research Building 2, 9th Floor12700 E. 19th Ave Aurora, Colorado 80045


Acute respiratory distress syndrome ARDS

Information relating to ARDS is reprinted with permission of PulmonologyChannel.
Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is sudden, life-threatening lung failure. ARDS inflames the alveoli, causing them to fill with liquid and collapse. Once the alveoli collapse, gas exchange ceases, and the body becomes starved of oxygen. Without mechanical ventilation or some other form of assisted breathing, the patient will probably die.

ARDS is a syndrome, not a specific disease. A variety of underlying, unrelated conditions, from blood-borne infections to major trauma, can cause the characteristic inflammation and accumulation of fluid (edema) in the alveoli.

ARDS usually occurs within 24 to 48 hours of the injury or illness. The duration and intensity of the crisis can vary considerably from patient to patient. The mortality rate of ARDS is estimated to be between 35% and 50%. Most patients die from the underlying disease or from complications of mechanical ventilation. In patients who survive, normal lung function usually resumes within 6 to 12 months.

According to the American Lung Association, the incidence of ARDS ranges from as low as 1.5 to as high as 71 per 100,000 persons in the United States.

The body’s respiratory system looks like an upside-down, hollow tree. Indeed, the passageways leading from the mouth to the interior of the lung are referred to as the tracheobronchial tree. The parts of the body through which air enters and leaves (the mouth, nose, larynx, and trachea) make up the trunk of the tree. The tubes that lead to the lungs (bronchi) and all the tiny tubes inside the lungs (bronchioles) are the tree’s branches and twigs.

Air moves through the respiratory system from the base of the trunk to the tips of the twigs. Clustered at the tips of the trachiobronchial twigs are tiny air sacs called alveoli, where inhaled oxygen passes in the blood stream. This is where ARDS occurs.


Injury to the alveoli
About 90% of the cells that make up the alveoli are very thin “type I epithelial cells” across which actual gas exchange takes place. Oxygen normally diffuses very easily through this layer of cells into the capillaries where it binds with the hemoglobin in the red blood cells.

The alveolar epithelial cells normally form a very tight barrier around the alveolar space, preventing any fluid from entering and disrupting gas exchange. In ARDS, the alveolar epithelial barrier breaks, opening the way for flooding of the alveolar space and making it difficult to impossible for oxygen to diffuse into the capillaries.

ARDS can affect the "type II alveolar cells" as well. Type II cells are thicker, square-shaped cells whose main function is to produce surfactant. Surfactant plays an essential role in keeping the alveoli from collapsing.

The flooding through the broken type I cell barrier and the diminished production of surfactant by the type II cells collapse the alveoli.

Alveolar damage is worsened by the activity of immune system cells called “neutrophils,” which rush to the site of injury, ironically, to help out. But their activity and the inflammation they cause create a cascade of further injury which sometimes extends into the capillaries as well.

Injury to the alveolar capillaries
If the original injury is in the alveolar capillaries that lie just beneath the alveoli, chemical mediators (usually cytokines) that the immune system releases in response, rush to the site of the injury, causing inflammation and destruction of the cells that line the capillaries (the capillary endothelium).

As a result, cells and fluid leak through the capillaries and into the alveolar spaces; the capillaries become blocked with cellular debris and fibrin (the protein that makes up blood clots); surfactant production ceases; and the alveoli collapse.