Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Medically reviewed by Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

ARDS treatment

There are no specific medications15 for ARDS. The condition is serious and requires hospital treatment, typically in an intensive care unit.

Oxygen therapy is the primary treatment for ARDS. Typically, patients receive a breathing tube that goes down the throat and into the lungs. These patients require sedation and are unable to eat or talk while the tube is inserted.

ARDS medication

Your provider may prescribe the following medications for ARDS:

May be prescribed

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Depending on the severity of your ARDS, your provider may use a machine to support your breathing. Such machines include:

  • Mechanical ventilators16: A mechanical ventilator pushes oxygen into your lungs, removes carbon dioxide, and forces some fluid out of the air sacs. Patients can gradually stop using a ventilator as their lungs and blood oxygen levels improve. Because breathing problems may persist, some people transition from a mechanical ventilator to portable oxygen therapy.
  • Non-invasive ventilation: You can receive breathing support without having a breathing tube inserted into the trachea. Non-invasive breathing devices are administered through a facial or nasal mask.

Your provider may prescribe the following medications for ARDS:

  • Acid-reducing medication to prevent stress ulcers, which can cause bleeding in the intestines
  • Antibiotics to treat or prevent infections
  • Blood thinners to stop blood clots from forming or growing larger. Heparin is a common blood thinner for adults
  • Muscle relaxants to help prevent coughing or gagging while on a ventilator or to reduce the amount of oxygen your body needs
  • Pain medication
  • Sedatives to help relieve anxiety, make it easier to breathe on a ventilator, or lower your body’s oxygen needs.

Your provider may recommend other treatments, including:

  • Blood transfusion to treat low hemoglobin levels and improve oxygen delivery to the body’s organs.
  • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)17, especially for severe ARDS. An ECMO machine works like an artificial lung by pumping and oxygenating your blood outside your body.

An ECMO machine takes in your blood through a tube. The blood flows through the artificial lung in the machine and is then pumped back into your body. When ventilation cannot deliver enough oxygen or while a patient waits for a lung transplant, ECMO can help you continue delivering enough oxygen to your blood.

  • Fluid management. Low fluid in your blood vessels can cause low blood pressure. Your provider may give you fluid through an intravenous (IV) line. Your provider may also give you medicines to help your body get rid of too much fluid.
  • Nutritional support through a feeding tube while you are on a ventilator.
  • Physical therapy to maintain muscle strength. Physical therapy can shorten how long you are on a ventilator and improve your recovery time after leaving the hospital.
  • Positioning your body. In severe cases of ARDS, your provider may recommend that you spend most of the time lying face down, which helps oxygen get to your lungs.

If you're recovering from ARDS, you can help protect your lungs by avoiding tobacco smoke and getting vaccinated to reduce your risk of lung infections.

As you recover from ARDS, your provider may ask you to do pulmonary function tests periodically after you are released from the hospital.

Your provider may also test your muscle strength and physical capacity, since staying in bed during long-term treatment can weaken your muscles.

Since ARDS can affect your mental health, your provider may also ask you about the state of your emotional health.

It can take months to recover18 from ARDS, particularly for older adults. Recovering your strength and returning to your routines can also take longer if you spent a long time on a ventilator.

Your provider can support your recovery or suggest additional resources. Keep regular appointments so your provider can monitor your recovery, and remember to take all medications as prescribed. Between visits, call your provider if you have any new symptoms or if your symptoms worsen.

You can recover from ARDS more easily with other people’s support. Others with ARDS can tell you about the common challenges that they have encountered during their recovery. Here are a few things you can do to get the support you need:

  • Ask for help: After your release from the hospital, ask others to help you with everyday tasks until you can confidently do them on your own.
  • Attend pulmonary rehabilitation: Pulmonary rehabilitation programs, which incorporate exercise training, education, and counseling, are offered by many medical centers.
  • Join a support group: Find support groups for people with chronic lung problems in your community or online so that you can talk to others with similar experiences.
  • Seek professional help: Tell your provider or contact a mental health professional if you have symptoms of depression, including hopelessness and loss of interest in usual activities.

Some people with ARDS may not get better, and those who do may have long-term lung problems19. They may also remain physically weak or have cognitive issues, which can occur when the brain doesn't get enough oxygen.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.