Respiratory Distress Syndrome: Causes and Symptoms

By  ,  Onlymyhealth editorial team
Jul 11, 2011

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Quick Bites

  • Respiratory distress syndrome is a breathing condition in new-borns.
  • It is very rare in full term infants and is more common in premature infants.
  • Lack of surfactant in the lungs is the main cause of the condition.
  • Depending on the severity of the condition, an infant may develop other medical conditions.


Respiratory distress syndrome is a breathing condition in new-borns. It is very rare in full term infants and is more common in premature infants who born about 6 weeks prior or more before the due dates. It is common in premature infants because the lungs of the prematurely born infants are unable to make enough surfactant, a liquid which coats the inside of the lungs. The coating of surfactant helps the infants to breathe in air when they are being born. Lack of enough of this liquid can collapse the lungs making it difficult for the new born to breathe. If the new born does not breathe enough oxygen, the body organs like brain might get damaged. It may also be an early phase of bronchopulmonary dysplasia which is another breathing disorder that affects premature babies. The condition may develop in the first 24 hours after the birth.

respiratory distress syndrome

What causes this condition?

The main cause of the condition is the lack of surfactant in the lungs. The lungs of the fetus start begin making surfactant during the third trimester of pregnancy. It coats the inside of the lungs and helps in keeping the lungs open so that new-born can breathe properly after birth.


The signs and symptoms of respiratory distress syndrome include:

  • Fast and shallow breathing
  • Sharp pulling in the chest below and between the ribs with each breath
  • Making grunting sounds
  • Flaring of the nostrils

Depending upon how severe is Respiratory Distress Syndrome, an infant may develop other medical conditions. These may include:

Lung complications:

The lung complications may include an atelectasis, pneumothorax and haemorrhage.

Blood and Blood Vessel Complications:

Infants with respiratory distress syndrome may develop sepsis which is an infection of the bloodstream. The infection can be fatal. Another condition called patent ductus arteriosus may also develop if the ductus arteriosus does not close as it should after the birth due to the lack of oxygen. The ductus arteriosus connects a lung artery to the heart artery and if it is left open, it can increase the blood pressure in the lung arteries by straining the heart.

New born

Other complications may include:

  • blindness
  • eye problems
  • bowel disease called necrotising enter colitis
  • kidney failure
  • bleeding in the brain
  • mental retardation or cerebral palsy.


As soon as the infant is born, the treatment for respiratory distress syndrome is started. The infants who begin to show the signs of the condition are immediately moved to the neonatal intensive care unit. The treatment for respiratory replacement therapy include: Surfactant replacement therapy, breathing support from a ventilator or nasal continuous positive airway pressure machine and oxygen therapy.

Image Courtesy : Getty

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