Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was a respiratory illness caused by the virus SARS-CoV-1. It caused an outbreak of severe illness in several countries between 2002 and 2003. Symptoms included high fever, cough and shortness of breath. No cases have been reported since 2004.


Symptoms of SARS included high fever, chills, headache, body aches, cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea and sore throat
People with SARS had flu-like symptoms. Some people developed a cough and shortness of breath a few days later.

What is SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)?

SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS-CoV-1) was a respiratory illness that spread in many countries around the world in 2002 and 2003. For many people, SARS caused flu-like symptoms (like fever and headache), but it progressed to severe illness in about 10% to 20% of people during the outbreak.

More than 8,000 people in 29 countries had SARS during the 2002-2003 outbreak. There was a small outbreak related to occupational exposure in 2004. Preventive measures stopped its spread, and only nine people were infected. There haven’t been any reported cases since then.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of SARS?

Symptoms of SARS include:

Some people only have a fever and other flu-like symptoms. Others develop a cough and shortness of breath two to seven days after their initial symptoms start.

What causes SARS?

A virus called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) causes SARS. Viruses are small pieces of genetic material (DNA or RNA) enclosed in a protective coating. They use your cells’ machinery to make more copies of themselves, which makes you sick.

How does SARS spread?

SARS spreads through respiratory droplets, usually when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes. You can also get it by touching contaminated surfaces. Surfaces can become contaminated when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes on them, or touches them without washing their hands.


What are the complications of SARS?

Complications of SARS include:

Management and Treatment

How is SARS treated?

Like many viruses, there aren’t any specific antiviral medications that treat SARS. During the 2002-2003 epidemic, people who were severely ill were put on mechanical ventilation if they couldn’t breathe on their own (about 10% to 20% of people needed a ventilator). People with less severe symptoms could treat themselves with pain relievers and fever reducers — much the same way you’d take care of yourself with a cold or the flu.



Can SARS be prevented?

In general, you can reduce the risk of spreading viruses (like SARS) and other infectious diseases by:

  • Washing your hands frequently.
  • Not being around people when you’re sick.
  • Wearing a mask if you need to be around people when you’re sick.
  • Covering your mouth and nose with your elbow when you cough or sneeze.

Additional Common Questions

How many people died from SARS?

At the end of the SARS epidemic in 2003, 916 people had died from the disease. One person died during a small outbreak in 2004.

Are COVID and SARS the same?

No, SARS and COVID-19 are different illnesses, caused by different viruses. They’re both respiratory illnesses caused by coronaviruses, which is why the viruses have similar names (SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2). Coronaviruses can also cause mild respiratory illnesses, like common colds.

COVID spreads more easily and has infected far more people than SARS did. COVID also seems to spread more easily before symptoms start (in SARS, people are most contagious after symptoms start).

How did we stop the spread of SARS?

Public health measures helped contain SARS. Scientists collaborated to quickly identify and find ways to test for the virus. SARS is most contagious after symptoms start, so screening people with symptoms and isolating at home was effective at containing the spread.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Outbreaks of any illness can cause uncertainty and anxiety. SARS caused both mild and severe illness and hundreds of deaths. But cooperation among scientists, healthcare providers and members of the affected communities helped limit the number of people who got sick. Health officials across multiple countries were able to work quickly to identify the virus and contain its spread. There haven’t been cases of SARS since 2004.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 03/06/2024.

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