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Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a disorder of lung function frequently affecting premature infants. Infants born at less than thirty-two weeks gestation are at the highest risk. RDS is caused by the inability of immature lungs to produce sufficient amounts of the chemical surfactant. Without surfactant, the small air sacks of the lungs collapse, resulting in poor exchange of oxygen and respiratory distress. RDS may be severe enough to cause respiratory failure and the need for support with a ventilator. Generally, RDS lasts three to five days; infants with mild cases recover quickly. Sicker infants may require long-term respiratory support and can develop chronic lung disease. RDS may be prevented and treated with the administration of surfactant into the lungs of at-risk or affected newborns. Preventing premature birth and treating pregnant women with steroid therapy prior to a premature birth decreases the chances of immature lungs and RDS. However, RDS remains a leading cause of death for premature infants.


Linden, Dana, Emma Paroli, and Mia Doron. Preemies: The Essential Guide for Parents of Premature Babies. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.

Spafford, P. S. "Use of Natural Surfactants to Prevent and Treat Respiratory Distress Syndrome." Seminars in Perinatology 17, no. 4 (1993):285-294.

Taeusch, H William, and Roberta Ballard. Avery's Diseases of the Newborn. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1998.

Diane D. Marshall

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