Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) occurs when blood oxygen levels drop too low because of fluid accumulating in the lungs. Numerous medical conditions, both acute and chronic, can cause ARDS. In many cases, a first responder or doctor will hear wheezing or crackling sounds coming from the lungs. When the lungs are clear, this usually signals a hematologic, metabolic, or obstructive process. Here’s what you need to know about diagnosing and treating the cause.
Symptoms of Respiratory Distress
Properly diagnosing respiratory distress ensures that patients get the right treatment as quickly as possible. Medical professionals must memorize the symptoms of respiratory distress and understand how they are distinct from other issues such as high blood pressure. The most common symptoms of respiratory distress include:
- In newborns and babies: nostril flaring when breathing or retractions when breathing.
- Cyanosis of the mouth, tongue, lips, fingers, or toes.
- Rapid, labored breathing.
- Generalized weakness.
- Unexplained coughing.
- Low blood pressure, especially if accompanied by a rapid pulse.
- Low oxygen saturation.
- The patient reports that they cannot get enough oxygen or feel like they are choking.
Causes of Respiratory Distress with Clear Lungs
Numerous conditions can cause respiratory distress, and in some cases, multiple disease processes are implicated. When a healthcare provider observes symptoms of respiratory distress and hears clear lungs, some potential causes include:
- Metabolic acidosis. In patients with diabetes or uncontrolled blood glucose, diabetic ketoacidosis is a potential culprit.
- Anemia. Anemia can compound the effects of other respiratory diseases. Severe anemia can also be the primary cause of respiratory distress, particularly in pediatric populations.
- Pulmonary hypertension.
Treating Respiratory Distress
To treat respiratory distress, it’s important to identify the cause (if at all possible). A patient in distress because of aspiration, for example, requires different treatment from one who is having an asthma attack. Prompt treatment with blood thinners may be life-saving in patients with pulmonary embolism, but can intensify symptoms in those with anemia and bleeding disorders.
In most scenarios, the right airway management strategy is critical. Supplemental oxygen and medications can improve breathing, but in patients with metabolic issues, aggressive management could actually exacerbate the problem. In some cases, the patient may even experience cardiac arrest.
This highlights the importance of post-intubation monitoring, as well as prompt diagnosis and treatment of the underlying cause of respiratory distress.
The Importance of Quality Equipment
Suctioning the airway of a person in respiratory distress can be life-saving, particularly when an obstruction is the culprit. Some patients may respond poorly to intubation, causing vomiting or bleeding that demands further suctioning. First responders must be able to promptly and safely suction the patient with equipment that delivers consistent suctioning while minimizing the risk of injury. Because acute respiratory distress can occur anywhere, a portable suction machine offers the fastest care. It can even help hospitals meet their duty of patient care under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires providers to tend to patients in waiting areas and within a 250-yard radius of the facility.
For help choosing the right suction machine for your needs, download our free guide, The Ultimate Guide to Purchasing a Portable Emergency Suction Device.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Nov 2019, it has since been updated with current content.