Patients with established adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) have a mortality rate that exceeds 50 percent. We analyzed the magnitude of hypoxemia as manifest by the PaO2/FIO2 ratio and its early response to conventional therapy including positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) in the placebo group of a large multicenter study. The PaO2/FIO2 ratio was not different at the time of diagnosis of ARDS in those patients who lived compared to those who subsequently died. After one day of conventional therapy including PEEP, those patients who survived increased their PaO2/FIO2 ratio. The nonsurvivors did not improve over a seven-day course. The difference in the PaO2/FIO2 ratio was significant throughout the seven-day observation period. We conclude that the early response to conventional therapy picks a patient population with a good prognosis and can be used as a test of likely survival from ARDS.