Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

  • Basics

    Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is caused by a new virus that appears to spread easily to others. It can cause serious symptoms and be difficult to treat.

    SARS is a new illness that is causing concern among medical professionals worldwide because of its ease of spread, the possible severity of symptoms, and the rapid health deterioration seen in some infected patients. SARS has been fatal in about 4% to 6% of cases. Death may result from respiratory failure caused by damage to the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs.

    The first case of SARS was diagnosed in November 2002. The initial outbreaks happened in China and Hanoi, Vietnam.

    Cases of SARS were reported in more than 25 countries by the end of April 2003. In most countries reporting SARS, the cases appear to have been limited to individuals who had recently traveled to an outbreak area, as well as to their close contacts and healthcare workers. There have been no new cases of SARS reported since 2003. The most up-to-date information about SARS cases can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website:

  • Causes

    SARS is caused by a newly discovered virus.

    There are many families and subtypes of viruses. Scientists have determined that a never-before-seen virus from the coronavirus family is the cause of SARS.

    Other viruses in the coronavirus family are common throughout the world. Illnesses caused by coronaviruses are more prevalent in the winter months. Pneumonia and the common cold are examples of illnesses that can be caused by a coronavirus.

    SARS is most likely spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and another person breathes in the unseen droplets released in the air from the cough or sneeze.

    How SARS is transmitted is not fully known at this time. Droplet transmission appears to be the primary way the illness is spread.

    Touching an object that has been contaminated by someone with the SARS virus may also spread SARS.

    Although it has not yet been proven, it is possible that you can get SARS by touching something contaminated with the virus and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Surfaces that may be contaminated with the virus include doorknobs, elevator buttons, telephones, and used tissue.

    Frequent and thorough hand washing with soap and water will decrease your chance of becoming ill from SARS, as well as a variety of other viruses and bacteria.

    People with SARS are most likely to be infectious (able to give the germ to others) during the time they are having symptoms. Those who have been exposed to the virus but are not ill are not believed to be able to spread the virus.

    Individuals who have symptoms of SARS are considered contagious until at least 10 days after symptoms of illness disappear. Those recovering from SARS should avoid contact with others until their clinician says they are no longer contagious.

    There is no evidence that people exposed to the SARS virus who are not ill have the ability to pass it to others; however, scientists have not completely ruled out this possibility. The time between exposure to SARS and the onset of symptoms is usually 2 to 7 days, but it may be as long as 10 to 16 days. Therefore, health officials in some countries are encouraging those who have been in close contact with a SARS patient to avoid contact with others for 10 days after their last exposure to the ill person.

Recommended Reading

Meet the Pharmacists

I'm Kristen Dore, PharmD. Welcome to PDR Health!

Check out my latest blog post on heartburn medication