Importance of the field: Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) describes a relatively common and frequently lethal syndrome at the severe end of the spectrum of acute lung injury. Onset of symptoms is usually within 72 h of the inciting event and complicates a wide variety of clinical disorders, ranging from infection to trauma. It may be defined as resistant hypoxaemia in the clinical setting of one of the group of recognised causes, in association with bilateral pulmonary infiltrates and in the absence of left atrial hypertension. Accurate diagnosis and differentiation from other treatable conditions is crucial. Areas covered in this review: This publication addresses the clinical and radiological features of ARDS, a review of the imaging technology with illustrations and differential diagnosis. What the reader will gain: This paper will give insight into the strengths and weaknesses of imaging modalities used in the management of patients with ARDS. Take home message: Imaging plays a vital role in the assessment of acute respiratory syndromes. Computed tomography is much more sensitive compared with chest radiography, and relatively under-utilised. Other methods, such as bedside ultrasound and impedance tomography, may have roles to play in the future.