What Is Respiratory Distress Syndrome?
Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a breathing
problem that sometimes affects babies born about 6 weeks or more before their
due dates. Their lungs aren't developed enough to make surfactant
(sur-FAK-tant). Surfactant is 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.
Without surfactant, the lungs collapse and the baby
has to work hard to breathe. The baby might not be able to breathe in enough
oxygen to support the body's organs.
Most infants who develop RDS show signs of breathing
problems at birth or within the next few hours. If they're not given the right
treatment, their brains and other organs may suffer from the lack of oxygen.
RDS is one of the most common lung disorders in
premature babies. It affects about 10 of every 100 premature infants in the
United States, or about 40,000 babies, each year. In fact, nearly all babies
born before 28 weeks of pregnancy develop RDS. Full-term infants rarely get it.
RDS is different from
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. Doctors aren't sure exactly what causes
BPD, but they do know that most babies who develop it are born with serious
All of these babies lack surfactant. But the babies
with RDS who go on to develop BPD have less developed lungs than the babies
with RDS who recover. Their lungs usually have fewer, larger alveoli, with
fewer tiny blood vessels than normal. The blood vessels are needed to move
oxygen from the alveoli into the bloodstream.
Thanks to recent medical advances, most babies with
RDS who weigh more than 2 pounds at birth now survive and have no long-term
health or development problems.