Respiratory Distress Syndrome

What is respiratory distress syndrome?

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a breathing problem that sometimes affects babies born six weeks or more before their due dates. Their lungs aren't developed enough to make surfactant, a liquid that coats the inside of the lungs and keeps them open so that the baby can breathe in air once he or she is born. RDS is different from bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), another breathing condition that affects premature babies. While RDS usually develops in the first 24 hours after birth, BPD usually develops within the next week or two.


  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Sharp pulling in of the chest below the ribs with each breath taken in
  • Grunting sounds during exhalation
  • Flaring of the nostrils during breathing
  • Diagnosis

    Tests include:

    • A chest X-ray, which also can identify complications like a collapsed lung that may require urgent treatment
    • Blood tests to see whether the baby has enough oxygen in his or her blood (These tests also can rule out infection and sepsis as a cause of the breathing problems.)
    • Echocardiogram to rule out congenital heart defects as the cause of the breathing problems


    The most important treatments for RDS are:

    • Surfactant replacement therapy
    • Breathing support


    Thanks to recent medical advances, most babies with RDS who weigh more than two pounds at birth now survive and have no long-term health or development problems.

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