Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

(Hyaline Membrane Disease)

ByArcangela Lattari Balest, MD, University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine
Reviewed/Revised Jul 2023 | Modified Sep 2023

Respiratory distress syndrome is a lung disorder in premature newborns in which the air sacs in their lungs do not remain open because a substance that coats the air sacs called surfactant is missing or insufficient.

  • Premature newborns and newborns whose mother had diabetes while pregnant are at increased risk of developing respiratory distress syndrome.

  • Affected newborns have severe difficulty breathing and may appear blue or gray because of a lack of oxygen in the blood.

  • The diagnosis is based on breathing trouble, oxygen levels in the blood, and chest x-ray results.

  • Oxygen is given, continuous positive airway pressure can be used to keep the air sacs open, and a ventilator may be necessary if breathing becomes too difficult for the newborn.

  • Sometimes surfactant is given until newborns start producing enough of their own surfactant.

  • If low oxygen levels in the blood cannot be improved with treatment, the syndrome may cause brain damage or death.

  • If the fetus will be born prematurely, the mother may be given a corticosteroid by injection to speed up the fetus’s production of surfactant.

(See also Overview of General Problems in Newborns.)

Respiratory distress is trouble breathing. For newborns to be able to breathe easily, the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs must be able to remain open and filled with air. Normally, the lungs produce a substance called surfactant. Surfactant coats the surface of the air sacs, where it lowers the surface tension. Low surface tension allows the air sacs to remain open throughout the respiratory cycle.

Usually, the fetus begins producing surfactant at around 24 weeks of pregnancy. By between 34 weeks and 36 weeks of pregnancy, there is enough surfactant in the fetus' lungs to allow the air sacs to remain open. Thus, the more premature the newborn, the less surfactant is available, and the greater the likelihood that respiratory distress syndrome will develop after birth. Respiratory distress syndrome occurs almost exclusively in premature newborns but may also occur in full-term and near full-term newborns whose mother had diabetes while pregnant.

Other risk factors include multiple fetuses (such as twins, triplets, or quadruplets) and being a White male.

Rarely, this syndrome is caused by a mutation in certain genes that causes a deficiency of surfactant. This genetically caused type of respiratory distress syndrome may occur in full-term babies as well.

Symptoms of Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

In affected newborns, the lungs are stiff and the air sacs tend to collapse completely, emptying the lungs of air. In some very premature newborns, the lungs may be so stiff that the newborns are unable to begin breathing at birth. More commonly, newborns try to breathe, but because the lungs are so stiff, severe trouble breathing (respiratory distress) occurs. Symptoms of respiratory distress include

  • Visibly labored and rapid breathing

  • Retractions (pulling in of the chest muscles attached to the ribs and below the ribs during rapid breathing)

  • Flaring of the nostrils during breathing in

  • Grunting while breathing out

Because much of the lung is airless in this condition, newborns with respiratory distress syndrome have low levels of oxygen in the blood, which causes a bluish or gray discoloration to the skin and/or lips (cyanosis). In newborns of color, the skin may change to colors such as yellow-gray, gray, or white. These changes may be more easily seen in the mucous membranes lining the inside of the mouth, nose, and eyelids.

Over a period of hours, the respiratory distress tends to become more severe as the muscles used for breathing tire, the small amount of surfactant in the lungs is used up, and increasing numbers of air sacs collapse. If the low oxygen levels are not treated, newborns may have damage to their brain and other organs and may die.

Diagnosis of Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

  • Signs of respiratory distress

  • Blood tests

  • Chest x-ray

  • Cultures of blood and sometimes of cerebrospinal fluid

The diagnosis of respiratory distress syndrome is based on signs of respiratory distress, levels of oxygen in the blood, and abnormal chest x-ray results.

Respiratory distress syndrome can sometimes accompany a disorder, such as infection in the blood (sepsis) or transient tachypnea of the newborn. Therefore, doctors may do other tests to rule out these disorders. Cultures of blood and sometimes cerebrospinal fluid may be done to look for certain kinds of infections.

Treatment of Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

  • Sometimes surfactant therapy

  • Oxygen and measures to support breathing

In some newborns with respiratory distress syndrome, a breathing tube may need to be passed into the windpipe after delivery. The tube is attached to a ventilator (a machine that helps air get in and out of the lungs) to support the newborn’s breathing. Surfactant is given to the newborn through the tube. Several doses of the surfactant may be needed.

After delivery, less premature newborns and newborns with mild respiratory distress syndrome may require only supplemental oxygen or may require oxygen delivered by continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Supplemental oxygen is given through prongs placed in the newborn’s nostrils. CPAP allows newborns to breathe on their own while being given slightly pressurized oxygen.

Surfactant treatments may be repeated several times during the first days of life if respiratory distress continues.

Prognosis for Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

With treatment, most newborns survive. Natural production of surfactant increases after birth. With continued production of surfactant and sometimes with breathing support and surfactant therapy (see Treatment), respiratory distress syndrome usually resolves within 4 or 5 days.

Some infants who need treatment for a long time develop bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

Without treatment that increases blood oxygen levels, newborns may develop heart failure and have damage to the brain or other organs or may die.

Prevention of Respiratory Distress Syndrome in Newborns

Before birth, doctors are able to test the maturity of the fetus's lungs by measuring the level of surfactant in the amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid is collected from the sac surrounding the fetus during a procedure called amniocentesis or is collected from the mother's vagina if the membranes have ruptured. The surfactant level helps doctors determine the best time to deliver the fetus. The risk of respiratory distress syndrome is greatly reduced if delivery can be safely delayed until the fetus’s lungs have produced sufficient surfactant.

After delivery, doctors may give a surfactant preparation to newborns who are at high risk of developing respiratory distress syndrome. At-risk newborns are those who were delivered before 30 weeks of gestational age, especially those whose mother did not receive corticosteroids. The surfactant preparation can be lifesaving and reduces the risk of some complications, such as collapse of the lung (pneumothorax). The surfactant preparation acts in the same way that natural surfactant does.

Surfactant therapy is given to newborns through a tube placed in the mouth that leads to the windpipe (called endotracheal intubation) and may be given immediately after birth in the delivery room to attempt to prevent respiratory distress syndrome before symptoms develop.

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