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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) - Overview

What is SARS?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a respiratory illness that first infected people in parts of Asia, North America, and Europe in late 2002 and early 2003. SARS is caused by a type of coronavirus, which can cause mild to moderate upper respiratory camera.gif illness, such as the common cold. This virus is known as SARS-CoV.

Experts believe SARS may have first developed in animals because the virus has been found in civets—a catlike wild animal that is eaten as a delicacy in China—and other animals.1 In the first outbreak 8,096 people became sick with SARS and 774 died.2

How is SARS spread?

Like most respiratory illnesses, SARS is spread mainly through contact with infected saliva or droplets from coughing. You cannot get SARS from brief, casual exposure to an infected person, such as passing someone on the street. In general, you need to have close contact to become infected. Close contact includes living with or caring for a person who has SARS or breathing in air that an infected person exhaled. But under some conditions, SARS has spread within an apartment building and to health care workers. Outbreaks of SARS do not appear to be seasonal.

An infection may develop after:

  • Sharing food or drink with an infected person.
  • Hugging or kissing a person who has SARS.
  • Close contact with an infected person.
  • Getting the tiny droplets on your hands by touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

It is possible SARS can be transmitted in other ways, such as by touching objects that are contaminated with feces from an infected person. This could happen if people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom.

The disease does not appear to spread from a mother to her baby at birth.1

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms are a fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing. A person with SARS also may experience a headache, muscle aches, a sore throat, fatigue, and diarrhea. Older people may feel generally unwell (malaise) and lose their appetite but not have a fever.1 For some people the symptoms get worse quickly, making a hospital stay necessary.

The incubation period—the time from when a person is first exposed to SARS until symptoms appear—is usually 3 to 7 days but may be as long as 10 days. Experts believe a person can spread the illness to others only while he or she has symptoms. As a precaution, though, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people who have SARS stay home, except for doctor visits, until 10 days after their symptoms have gone away.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: June 13, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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