What Is SARS?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 29, 2022

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is a potentially deadly illness that quickly spread around the world in 2003. It’s a viral infection that causes flu-like symptoms.

SARS first sprang to the world’s attention in early 2003, when more than 8,000 people got sick in an outbreak that spread to 26 countries. Nearly 800 people died.

Doctors and scientists tracked the disease to southeastern China, near Hong Kong. From there, travelers soon carried SARS to other countries in Asia, such as Vietnam and Singapore, as well as Europe and Canada.

Public health officials around the world scrambled to contain the outbreak. We’ve had no reported cases since 2004.

SARS is caused by a virus that takes over your body’s cells and uses them to make copies of itself. The SARS virus is from a group known as coronaviruses, which also cause the common cold.

SARS can spread when people who have it cough or sneeze, spraying tiny droplets of liquid with the virus to other people within 2-3 feet. Other people may get the virus by touching something those droplets hit, then touching their nose, eyes, or mouth.

People who live with or are in close contact with someone who has SARS are more likely to get it than someone who is just passing by or sharing a room with an infected person.

The symptoms of SARS start off similar to the flu. They may include:

  • A fever over 100.4 F (38 C)
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches

About 1 in 5 people with SARS may also get diarrhea.

But the symptoms can get worse fast. SARS causes a dry cough that shows up anywhere from 2 to 7 days into the illness. This cough can keep your body from getting enough oxygen, and more than 1 in 10 people with SARS will need a machine to help them breathe.

SARS can lead to other health problems, including pneumonia, heart failure, and liver failure. People who are over 60 and have ongoing illnesses like diabetes or hepatitis are most likely to have these problems.

If you have symptoms like a high fever, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, you should see a doctor, especially if you’ve just come back from a trip overseas.

If there has been a new outbreak of SARS, you should tell your doctor whether you have been to the area where the outbreak happened. And if you think you have been exposed to SARS, you should avoid public places and take other steps so you don’t pass it on to others.

Doctors might also ask whether you work in a lab or a medical center where you might have been exposed to the virus or whether you have some connection to other people with serious respiratory infections like pneumonia.

If your doctor suspects you have SARS, they can confirm it with lab tests and images from an X-ray or CT scan.

It will depend on how severe your case is. If your symptoms are mild, you may be allowed to recover at home. But if they get worse, you may have to go to a hospital for more treatment, like getting fluids or oxygen.

No drugs work against the virus that causes SARS. But you may get antibiotics to fight off other infections while you recover.

There’s no cure for SARS. You can lower your chances of getting it in the first place with some simple steps:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with dirty hands.
  • Wear disposable gloves if you have contact with someone’s pee, poop, saliva, or other body fluids.
  • Wipe surfaces like countertops with disinfectants, and wash personal items with soap and hot water.
  • If you’re around someone with SARS, wear a surgical mask to cover your nose and mouth.

Show Sources


World Health Organization: “SARS.”

CDC: “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.”

National Academy of Sciences: “SARS: Down but Still a Threat.”

Mayo Clinic: “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.”

American Lung Association: “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.”

Illinois Department of Health: “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).”

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