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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

What is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome?

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is a serious form of Pneumonia, resulting in acute respiratory distress and sometimes death. SARS is caused by a new member of the coronavirus family (the same family that can cause the common cold).

SARS is spread by droplet contact. When someone with SARS coughs or sneezes, infected droplets are sprayed into the air. The SARS virus may live on hands, tissues, and other surfaces for up to 6 hours in these droplets and up to 3 hours after the droplets have dried.

SARS might also spread by hands and other objects the droplets had touched. Airborne transmission was a real possibility in some cases. Live virus had even been found in the stool of people with SARS, where it has been shown to live for up to four days. And the virus may be able to live for months or years when the temperature is below freezing.

The incubation period is usually between two and ten days, although there have been documented cases where the onset of illness was considerably faster or slower. People with active symptoms of illness are contagious but may begin before symptoms appear or after the symptoms have disappeared.

SARS virus image under electron microscope

Signs and Symptoms

The hallmark symptoms are fever greater than 100.4 degrees F (38.0 degrees C) and cough, difficulty breathing, or other respiratory symptoms. Symptoms includes:

  • Fever
  • Chills and shaking
  • Muscle aches
  • Cough
  • Headache

Less common symptoms include (also in order):

  • Dizziness
  • Productive cough (sputum)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • diarrhea


Between 10 percent and 20 percent of people with SARS become progressively worse and develop breathing problems so severe that they need the help of a mechanical respirator. SARS is fatal in some cases, often due to respiratory failure. Other possible complications include heart and liver failure.


People suspected of having SARS should be evaluated immediately by a physician and hospitalized under isolation if they meet the definition of a suspected or probable case.

Antibiotics are sometimes given in an attempt to treat bacterial causes of atypical lung infection. Antiviral medications have also been used. High doses of steroids have been employed to reduce lung inflammation. In some serious cases, serum from people who have already gotten well from SARS (convalescent serum) has been given. Evidence of general benefit of these treatments has been inconclusive.

Other supportive care such as supplemental oxygen, chest physiotherapy, or mechanical ventilation is sometimes needed.


Protecting yourself

If you’re caring for someone at home with SARS, these measures can help you stay healthy:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water or use an alcohol-based hand rub containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Instead of touching your face with your hands, use a disposable tissue to rub your eyes or nose.
  • Wear disposable gloves if you have contact with the patient’s body fluids or feces. Throw the gloves away immediately after use and wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Wear a surgical mask when you’re in the same room as a person with SARS. Wearing glasses also may offer some protection.
  • Use soap and hot water to wash the utensils, towels, bedding and clothing of someone with SARS. Don’t use these items yourself until they’re clean.
  • Use a household disinfectant to clean any surfaces that may have been contaminated with sweat, saliva, mucus, vomit, stool or urine. Wear disposable gloves while you clean and throw the gloves away when you’re done.
  • Follow all precautions for at least 10 days after the person’s signs and symptoms have disappeared.
  • Keep children of home away from school if they develop a fever or respiratory symptoms within 10 days of being exposed to someone with SARS. They can return to school if symptoms go away after three days.

Protecting others

If you’ve been diagnosed with SARS, the following measures can help prevent the infection from spreading:

  • Wash your hands carefully and frequently with soap and hot water or an alcohol-based hand rub containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and if possible, wear a surgical mask when you’re in close contact with other people.
  • Don’t share your silverware, towels or bedding with anyone in your home until these items have been thoroughly washed with soap and hot water.
  • Avoid going to school, work or other public places for 10 days after your signs and symptoms disappear.

Traveling safely

Consider taking the following measures to help reduce your risk of SARS when traveling:

  • Buy or assemble a basic first-aid kit. Make sure the kit includes an alcohol-based hand cleanser.
  • Inform yourself. Learn as much as you can about the SARS status of the countries you’ll visit. You can find the latest information about SARS on the WHO and CDC Web sites.
  • Make sure you’re current on all of your immunizations. It’s best to have any needed shots 4 to 6 weeks before your departure.
  • Check your travel insurance. You may want to purchase coverage for medical evacuation if you’re traveling to a country that’s having a SARS or other infectious disease outbreak.
  • Know where medical care will be available in the areas you visit. Take with you a list of the names, addresses and phone numbers of recommended doctors and hospitals at your destinations.
  • Avoid “live” markets. For examples in China, avoid visiting live food markets. Civet cats sold in these markets have been found to carry viruses similar to the SARS virus.
  • Elakkan mengunjungi pasar haiwan hidup seperti di China. Kucing kecil yang berbitik-bintik ada dijual di pasar tersebut dan didapati membawa virus yang serupa dengan virus SARS.

In transit

Some experts believe that infections can spread on airplanes through the air vents located directly above your seat. It’s best to turn these vents off and to carry disposable towelettes so that you can clean your hands frequently during the flight.

Last reviewed : 28 August 2020
Writer : Dr. Fuad Hashim
Reviewer : Dr. Nor Faizah bt. Ghazali