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How Dangerous is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)?

SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory SyndromeSevere acute respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS, is a contagious respiratory illness that first appeared in late 2002 and early 2003 in Asia, North America and Europe. During the first outbreak 8,098 people became ill from SARS and 774 died.[1],[2]

SARS is caused by a corona virus, a type of virus that causes symptoms similar to those of the common cold. Although most corona viruses are treated with over-the-counter cold medicine and are not serious, in rare cases they can cause severe illness.1

How Dangerous is SARS?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there haven’t been any known cases of SARS anywhere in the world since 2004. The CDC continues to work with state and federal agencies, health departments and health care organizations around the world to plan for rapid recognition of the SARS virus and prompt response to any known person-to-person transmission.[2]

How is SARS Spread?

Like most respiratory illnesses, SARS is spread through direct human contact with the saliva or respiratory droplets of infected individuals. You won’t get SARS by merely passing an infected person on the street. Caring for, or living with a person who has SARS, or breathing in air that someone with SARS has exhaled, are all examples of close contact. However it should be noted that SARS has spread within an entire apartment complex and to health care workers. Unlike the flu virus, SARS does not appear to be seasonal.1

To follow are some examples of how SARS can be spread:1,2

  • Sharing food or drink with someone who has SARS
  • Hugging, kissing or touching someone who has SARS
  • Talking to someone with SARS who is within 3 feet of you
  • Touching contaminated surfaces or objects that an infected person has touched, and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth
  • Touching objects that are contaminated with the feces of an infected person who didn’t wash their hands after using the restroom

Symptoms of SARS

The main symptoms of SARS are:1,2

  • Fever > 4°F (38.0°C)
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Someone who has SARS may also experience a headache, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue and diarrhea.1 Most people with SARS also develop pneumonia.2 Symptoms of SARS may quickly worsen for some people leading to hospitalization and death.1 If you think you may have SARS, it’s important that you seek medical attention as soon as possible to help prevent it from worsening and spreading.

How Long is the Incubation Period?

 The incubation period of SARS – the period of time from when a person is first exposed to the SARS virus to the time when symptoms first appear – is anywhere from 3 to 10 days.1

Treatment of SARS

To date, there is no cure for SARS. However, the following supportive medications have been used to help manage symptoms:1

  • Corticosteroids
  • Antivirals such as ribavirin and interferon

Although most people with SARS recover, approximately 1 out of 10 will die. The risk of death is increased in elderly people over 65 and people with chronic illnesses, such as COPD, diabetes and heart disease.1

Prevention of SARS

The following tips will help you prevent SARS:1

  • Stay away from crowds, public gatherings and people who have the SARS virus.
  • Practice frequent handwashing using soap and warm water. If no water is available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in between washings.

Although wearing faces masks to prevent infection is a frequent practice in many Asian countries, the CDC does not currently recommend it.

For more information about SARS, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


[1] WebMD. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) – Overview. Accessed 11/10/2017.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Last updated April 8, 2013.


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