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Diseases & Conditions

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome

(Also Called 'SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)')

SARS is a respiratory illness that is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). Coronaviruses are a common cause of upper respiratory illnesses – including the common cold – in humans and cause a number of diseases in animals.

The first reported case of SARS surfaced in China in November 2002. Since then, the virus has been reported in other parts of Asia (Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand), North America (the United States and Canada) and Europe. As of June 2003, more than 8,400 people have been diagnosed with the illness worldwide and around 800 of these people have died – or about 10 percent of those who contract the illness. In the United States, fewer than 100 people have been diagnosed with the illness, and no person has died. At this point, the extent to which this illness can further spread remains uncertain. The number of cases globally and in the United States fell quickly and to date have not reappeared. Health officials continue to track the illness globally.

What are the symptoms of SARS?

To meet the diagnosis of SARS, a person must have:

  • A temperature greater than 100.4 degrees
  • One or more symptoms of respiratory illness, such as cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or hypoxia (less than the normal level of oxygen in the blood), or x-ray evidence of pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome. These symptoms develop 2 to 7 days after initial symptoms, which include headache, body aches and a general feeling of discomfort.
  • Traveled (including transit in an airport) within the last 10 days to mainland China; Hong Kong; Hanoi, Vietnam; Singapore; Taiwan; or Toronto, Canada, or come in close contact within the last 10 days with someone who has traveled to one of those areas who has been diagnosed with SARS, or who has been in close contact with someone with SARS.
  • Laboratory evidence of SARS (detection of SARS-associated coronavirus and/or antibodies to SARS-associated coronavirus)

How does a person get SARS?

Health experts believe that the most common way people get SARS is through direct contact with infectious material (for example, respiratory secretions) from an infected person. Potential ways in which SARS can be spread include touching the skin of other people or objects that are contaminated with infectious droplets from a cough or sneeze of a SARS-infected person. It is possible that SARS can be spread more broadly through the air or by other ways that are not currently known.

Information to date suggests that people infected with SARS are most likely to spread the illness to others when they have symptoms. It is not known for how long before or after symptoms begin that SARS might be able to be transmitted to others.

In the United States, individuals at highest risk of getting SARS are those who have traveled and returned from areas of the world with a high number of reported SARS cases. In areas of the world with SARS outbreaks, individuals at highest risk have been those who have had direct close contact with an infected person, such as those sharing a household with a SARS patient as well as healthcare workers who care for SARS patients.

How long does it take for the disease to develop?

After exposure to SARS, it takes from between 2 to 10 days for the illness to develop. As is true with the common cold, keep in mind that not everyone who comes in contact with the virus develops the illness.

Are there treatments for SARS?

At this point in time, there are no medications, vaccines, or antiviral therapies that precisely target SARS. People in the United States who are diagnosed with SARS are being treated as if they had pneumonia, meaning they are prescribed antibiotics if doctors believe that is necessary. Fortunately, most people who contract SARS seem to fully recover.

What should I do if I have all the symptoms of SARS?

Try to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and wear a facemask if possible. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly and especially after blowing your nose. Do not share any items that you touch with family members until they have been washed in soap and hot water. This includes silverware, towels and bedding. Keep surfaces, such as countertops, doorknobs and bathroom fixtures clean by using household disinfectants and disposable gloves. Limit interactions outside the home for 10 days after the respiratory symptoms and fever are gone. Do not go to work, school or other public areas. Call your family physician for further instructions.

I have upcoming travel plans outside of the United States, what should I know?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with the World Health Organization frequently update their travel guidelines based on new information learned about SARS itself and revised outbreak information. Contact these organizations for the latest travel advisories.

CDC contact information
888.246.2675 (toll-free)

If you will be traveling to areas of the world in which a high number of outbreaks have occurred, you will be asked to monitor your health upon return for 10 days and to see your doctor if you develop fever accompanied or followed by cough and/or have difficulty breathing.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 1/26/2010...#10856