SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

Written by Shannon Johnson | Published on June 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


What Is SARS?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a serious form of viral pneumonia. The disease is relatively new; the virus that causes SARS was first identified in 2003.

The World Health Organization (WHO) designated SARS as a global health threat. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a 2003 epidemic first affected people living in Canada, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Vietnam before spreading around the globe. The killed approximately 750 people worldwide before it was successfully contained (NIH, 2011).

The Mayo Clinic states that no new cases of SARS have been reported since 2004 (Mayo Clinic, 2011). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the only cases found in the United States were in people who traveled abroad (CDC, 2004).

What Are the Symptoms of SARS?

SARS symptoms are similar to those of pneumonia, including:

  • fever over 100.4 °F
  • dry cough
  • problems breathing, including shortness of breath
  • headache
  • muscle stiffness
  • loss of appetite
  • malaise
  • confusion
  • rash
  • diarrhea

Breathing issues will appear within two to 10 days after a person is exposed to the virus. Health officials will quarantine a person who presents with the above symptoms and family members if he or she has a history of foreign travel. The person will be quarantined for 10 days to prevent the virus from spreading.

Factors that increase your risk of contracting the disease include close contact with someone diagnosed with SARS and a history of travel to Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, or any other country with a reported SARS outbreak.

How Is SARS Spread?

SARS can spread when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or comes into face-to-face contact with someone else. Face-to-face contact refers to:

  • caring for someone with SARS
  • having contact with the bodily fluids of a SARS patient
  • kissing, hugging, touching, or sharing eating or drinking utensils with an infected person

You can also contract SARS by touching a surface contaminated with respiratory droplets from an infected person and then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose. The disease may also be spread through the air, but researchers have not confirmed this hypothesis.

How Is SARS Diagnosed?

Various lab tests have been developed to detect the SARS virus. During the first outbreak of SARS, there were no laboratory tests for the disease. Diagnosis was made primarily through symptoms and medical history. Now, laboratory tests can be performed on nasal and throat swabs or blood samples (Fouchier and Osterhaus, 2004). A chest X-ray or CT imaging scan may also reveal signs of pneumonia characteristic of SARS.

How Can SARS Be Prevented?

Here are some of the best ways to prevent transmission of SARS if you are in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the disease:

  • wash your hands frequently
  • wear disposable gloves if touching any infected bodily fluids
  • wear a surgical mask when in the same room with a SARS patient
  • disinfect surfaces that may have been contaminated with the virus
  • wash all personal items, including bedding and utensils, used by a SARS patient

Follow all of the above steps for at least 10 days after the symptoms of SARS have gone away. In addition, keep children home from school if they develop a fever or any breathing problems after coming in contact with someone with SARS.

How Can SARS Be Treated?

SARS patients are given antibiotics to treat pneumonia. Antiviral medications and steroids are given to reduce lung swelling. Supplemental oxygen or a ventilator may be prescribed if necessary. In severe cases, blood plasma from someone who has already recovered from SARS may also be administered. However, there is not yet enough evidence to prove that these treatments are effective.

Can SARS Cause Complications?

Most of the fatalities associated with SARS result from respiratory failure. SARS can also lead to heart and liver failure. The group most at risk of developing complications is people over 60 who have been diagnosed with another chronic condition.

The death rate for SARS is about nine to 12 percent of those diagnosed. Patients over the age of 65 had a death rate higher than 50 percent during the 2003 outbreak (NIH, 2011).

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Show Sources

  • Crowe, K. (2003, April 25). The Mysteries of Testing, Treatment, and Transmission. CBC. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from
  • Fouchier, R.A., & Osterhaus, A.D. (Jan. 6, 2004). Laboratory tests for SARS: Powerful or peripheral? Canadian Medical Association Journal. 170(1): 63-64.
  • SARS Fact Sheet. (2004, Jan. 13). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from
  • SARS: Questions and answers. (2003, Aug. 14). CBC. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from
  • SARS: Treatment and Drugs. (2011, Jan. 6). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). (2011, Feb. 19). PubMed Health. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from

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