The acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) arises from direct and indirect injury to the lungs and results in a life-threatening form of respiratory failure in a heterogeneous, critically ill patient population. Critical care technologies used to support patients with ARDS, including strategies for mechanical ventilation, have resulted in improved outcomes in the last decade. However, there is still a need for effective pharmacotherapies to treat ARDS, as mortality rates remain high. To date, no single pharmacotherapy has proven effective in decreasing mortality in adult patients with ARDS, although exogenous surfactant replacement has been shown to reduce mortality in the paediatric population with ARDS from direct causes. Several promising therapies are currently being investigated in preclinical and clinical trials for treatment of ARDS in its acute and subacute, exudative phases. These include exogenous surfactant therapy, beta(2)-adrenergic receptor agonists, antioxidants, immunomodulating agents and HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors (statins). Recent research has also focused on prevention of acute lung injury and acute respiratory distress in patients at risk. Drugs such as captopril, rosiglitazone and incyclinide (COL-3), a tetracycline derivative, have shown promising results in animal models, but have not yet been tested clinically. Further research is needed to discover therapies to treat ARDS in its late, fibroproliferative phase. Given the vast number of negative clinical trials to date, it is unlikely that a single pharmacotherapy will effectively treat all patients with ARDS from differing causes. Future randomized controlled trials should target specific, more homogeneous subgroups of patients for single or combination therapy.