What Is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)?

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is a serious respiratory viral infection that is contagious and potentially fatal. Similar to the cold and influenza, it is an airborne virus that is spread directly by respiratory droplets, as well as indirectly via surfaces that have been touched by someone infected with the virus.

SARS was first reported in China in November 2002. Within a few months, it spread fast to other parts of the world, and has since been reported in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand), North America (the United States and Canada), and Europe before it was contained.

According to the WHO, it was the first severe and readily transmissible new disease to emerge in the 21st century and showed a clear capacity to spread along the routes of international air travel.

Considering how contagious and deadly this respiratory illness can be, health officials and organisations constantly keep track of it worldwide.

In this article, you will understand more about SARS, as well as its causes, symptoms, treatment, and symptoms. You will also know when to see a doctor.


Causes of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

SARS is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which first emerged in China and gained global notoriety from 2002 to 2003 causing a travel-related global outbreak with 8098 cases and 774 deaths. 

The SARS-CoV is related to the COVID-19 virus, which causes SARS-CoV-2 infection.

In the midst of COVID-19 outbreaks worldwide, there have been no reports of new SARS cases since 2004. 

Coronaviruses are zoonotic diseases, which means they originate from animals and are passed on to humans. With SARS-CoV, bats are probably a significant reservoir. Horseshoe bats and civet cats have both been found to harbour SARS-like CoVs.

Signs and symptoms of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

A person that has SARS will initially (2 to 7 days after contact) be down with flu-like symptoms that may seem harmless at first. As time goes on (7 to 10 days after contact), they will be very evident and include:

  • A temperature higher than 100.4°F or 38.0°C
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Diarrhoea
  • Hypoxia (low oxygen levels in the body)

Management and treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

Currently, there are no antiviral treatments, vaccines, or medications that specifically target SARS.

However, scientists and researchers are working on several types of vaccines for SARS, but none have been tested on humans yet.

Generally, people diagnosed with SARS are treated for pneumonia with antibiotics if the doctors deem it necessary. Antibiotics help to treat secondary infections that result from SARS. However, antibiotics do not treat SARS.

Treatment also involves supportive care with appropriate fluid and electrolyte balance, oxygenation, and organ support to ease symptoms.

To manage the spread, individuals with suspected cases will also be quarantined, and safety measures put in place.


How is SARS diagnosed?

To know if a person has SARS, a doctor would first ask the individual about symptoms and carry out a physical examination. A doctor will also ask if the person has recently traveled  or has given care to a person with SARS.

Laboratory tests that can help identify SARS-CoV can be carried out via blood tests, stool tests, testing nasal secretions, as well as imaging tests. However, during the early stage of infection, they may not be reliable.

A person can only have SARS if there is a current outbreak and if they have visited an area where the disease is occurring. 

Can SARS be prevented?

If you’re a health worker or you’re caring for a family member that has SARS, there are some safety guidelines to follow that can reduce your chances of contracting this respiratory infection.

These precautions should be followed for at least 10 days after the person's signs and symptoms have disappeared.

  • Wash your hands regularly: Since SARS can be transmitted indirectly through coming in contact with surfaces that an infected person has touched, it is important to wash your hands frequently. You can do this with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitiser
  • Disinfect surfaces: Clean surfaces that have been contaminated with sweat, saliva, mucus, vomit, stool, or urine with a household disinfectant. Ensure to wear gloves while you clean
  • Wear a face mask: SARS is an airborne respiratory infection, so wearing a mask will offer some protection as a health worker or caregiver for an individual with SARS
  • Put on disposable gloves: Wear a pair of disposable gloves if you come in contact with the person's bodily fluids or faeces. After use, throw the gloves right away and give your hands a good wash

Who is at risk of SARS?

People at greatest risk of SARS are those who have had direct, close contact with someone who's infected, such as family members and healthcare workers.

How common is SARS?

After the epidemic of 2002 to 2003, SARS was controlled, and by 2004, it was over. Since then, there have been no new cases of SARS reported. However, other Coronaviruses, such as MERS and COVID-19, have surfaced and continue to erupt worldwide.

Is SARS contagious?

Yes, SARS is contagious. It spreads through close human contact and in droplets from coughing and sneezing. Other ways of transmitting the virus may include:

  • Sharing utensils for eating and drinking
  • Direct contact with an infected person
  • Hugging and kissing
  • Touching surfaces (tables, door handles, phones, counters) that have invisible droplets on them or surfaces that have been touched by an infected person.

What are the possible complications of SARS?

Pneumonia is a common complication of SARS, and breathing difficulties can sometimes get so bad that a mechanical respirator is required. Some cases of SARS result in death, frequently from respiratory failure. Failure of the heart and liver are further potential consequences.

Older adults are more at risk of severe complications, particularly those with underlying illnesses like diabetes or hepatitis. 

When should I see a doctor?

You should see your doctor right away if you have just traveled abroad and you have flu-like symptoms or signs of a respiratory infection accompanied by fever. 

If within the last 10 days with someone, you have come in close contact who has traveled and has been diagnosed with SARS, or who has been in close contact with someone with SARS, see your doctor immediately.


SARS is a coronavirus that causes upper respiratory infections that are contagious and potentially fatal. When it broke out between 2002 and 2003, it was quickly contained, and since 2004, there have been no reports of any case anywhere in the world.

Other coronaviruses like MERS and COVID-19 are however still present. 


  1. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). https://www.who.int/health-topics/severe-acute-respiratory-syndrome. Accessed 11 Mar. 2023.
  2. Hui, David S. C., and Alimuddin Zumla. ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome’. Infectious Disease Clinics of North America, vol. 33, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 869–89. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.idc.2019.07.001.
  3. SARS | Home | Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome | SARS-CoV Disease | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/sars/index.html. Accessed 11 Mar. 2023.
  4. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/middle-east-respiratory-syndrome-coronavirus-(mers-cov). Accessed 11 Mar. 2023.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Godswill Samson

BSc, Pharmacology, University of Lagos, Nigeria

Godswill is a budding health writer with a passion for health and wellness. She combines this with her writing skill to educate the public on ways to live fuller and healthier lives.

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