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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) - Overview

What are the symptoms? continued...

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.

If you think you may have SARS, be sure to call your doctor before you go in to get checked. The doctor will need to make sure you do not infect other people.

How is SARS diagnosed?

Your doctor may suspect SARS if you have a fever and you either have traveled to a SARS-affected area or have in the past 10 days been around a person who has SARS.

Your doctor may order several tests to find out the cause of your symptoms. A chest X-ray may be done if you are short of breath or coughing. A blood sample, sputum sample, or nasal swab may be done to detect bacteria or viruses. Your doctor may suspect that you have SARS if tests rule out any other cause for your symptoms, especially if you had contact with someone who has SARS or you traveled to an area experiencing a SARS outbreak. In this case, blood tests may be done to detect substances in your blood (antibodies) that form to fight the SARS virus.

You will need at least two tests for antibodies done on separate days to confirm an infection. You also may have tests to detect the genetic material (RNA) of the SARS virus. RNA testing is not available everywhere.

How is it treated?

Severe cases of SARS often require a hospital stay, especially if breathing problems develop. You will be placed in isolation to prevent passing the disease to others. Various medicines—including corticosteroids and the antiviral medicine ribavirin—have been used to treat SARS. But no medicine is known to cure the illness. Doctors continue to search for an effective treatment. One early study showed that the antiviral medicine interferon alfacon-1, taken along with corticosteroids, may help in the treatment of SARS by increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood.3

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