Respiratory distress syndrome

Last revised by Rania Adel Anan on 23 Dec 2023

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a relatively common condition that occurs in preterm neonates resulting from insufficient production of surfactant. 

Respiratory distress syndrome is also known as hyaline membrane disease (this term is not favored as it reflects non-specific histological findings), neonatal respiratory distress syndrome, lung disease of prematurity (both non-specific terms), or surfactant deficiency disorder 2

The incidence is estimated at 6 in 1000 births 2. It is uncommon after 36 weeks gestation due to the development of pneumocyte surfactant production around 35 weeks 5.

Risk factors include:

Associated conditions are those that can occur in prematurity:

Respiratory distress syndrome presents in the first few hours of life in a premature baby. Signs include tachypnea, expiratory grunting, and nasal flaring. The infant may or may not be cyanosed. Substernal and intercostal retractions may be evident.

Immature type II pneumocytes cannot produce surfactant. The lack of surfactant increases the surface tension in alveoli causing them to collapse. Patients have a decreased lecithin to sphingomyelin ratio. Damaged cells, necrotic cells, and mucus line the alveoli.

Although most cases are related to prematurity alone, patients may rarely have genetic disorders of surfactant production and can present in a similar clinical and radiological manner 6.

As the alveoli are collapsed (microscopically), the lungs are collapsed macroscopically as well. It is a diffuse type of adhesive atelectasis.

  • low lung volumes

  • diffuse, bilateral and symmetrical granular opacities 

  • bell-shaped thorax

  • air bronchograms may be evident

Hyperinflation makes the diagnosis less likely, unless the patient is intubated.

If treated with surfactant therapy, there may be an asymmetric improvement as more surfactant may reach certain parts of the lungs than others.

On transabdominal ultrasound, retrodiaphragmatic hyperechogenicity can be seen. If this hyperechogenicity does not resolve by day 9-18 on follow-up ultrasound, it helps in the prediction of the risk of development of bronchopulmonary dysplasia ref.

Exogenous surfactant administration is an effective treatment, traditionally administered via endotracheal tube, though less invasive methods of surfactant administration such as via laryngeal mask airway are becoming more common 7. Supportive oxygen therapy is typically required for a period of time.

Consider:

ADVERTISEMENT: Supporters see fewer/no ads

Cases and figures

  • Case 1: complicated by pneumothorax
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 2
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 3
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 4
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 5
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 6
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 7
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 8: with misplaced NG tube
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 9
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 10: with left-sided pneumothorax
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 11
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 12: severe
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Case 13
    Drag here to reorder.