Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome


Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is a respiratory infection that was first identified in a 2003 outbreak.

The Respiratory System
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SARS is caused by a specific group of viruses. The viruses are spread from droplets in the air. The droplets come from spray when a sick person sneezes or coughs. Viruses can also be picked up from objects that an ill person has touched.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of developing SARS include:

  • Gene variation in the immune system—This gene variation may be more common in people in Southeast Asia. The variation makes people more susceptible to developing SARS.
  • Recent travel to locations in Asia where SARS outbreaks have been reported.
  • Close contact with someone who has SARS.
  • Healthcare workers who care for patients with SARS.


SARS requires care from your doctor. If you suspect you have this condition, contact your doctor right away.

SARS may cause:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Body aches and pains
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhea
  • Malaise (a general feeling of discomfort)
  • Muscular stiffness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Confusion
  • Rash


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Blood culture
  • Sputum culture
  • Detection of SARS viruses in blood, sputum, and stool by:
    • Viral culture
    • Antibody
    • DNA
  • Pulse oximetry to measure the oxygen level in your blood
  • Chest x-ray

The diagnosis is made by a combination of the typical symptoms and detection of the virus


There are currently no medications to treat or cure SARS. Viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics and current antiviral drugs have not had any effect.

Researchers are looking for ways to shorten the course and severity of the infection with:

  • Corticosteroids
  • Medications that suppress or enhance the immune system

The symptoms of SARS will be treated with oxygen therapy if it is needed. If you are having difficulty breathing, you may be given oxygen through a tube or mask. More severe problems may require a machine to help you breathe.


To help reduce your chance of getting SARS, take these steps:

  • Practice proper hand washing .
  • Regularly use alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
  • Disinfect toilets, sinks, or other objects or surfaces used by anyone with SARS.
  • Do not share utensils, glasses, towels, or linen with anyone with SARS.
  • If you are a healthcare worker, use gloves, gown, and use eye protection when caring for patients with SARS.

Revision Information

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • World Health Organization

  • Health Canada

  • Public Health Agency of Canada

  • Goldman L, et al. Cecil Textbook of Medicine . 22nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders Company; 2004.

  • Lu P, Zhou B, et al. Chest x-ray imaging of patients with SARS. Chin Med J. 2003;116(7):972-975.

  • Mandell G, et al. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases . 6th ed. London: Churchill Livingstone, Inc.; 2005.

  • Mason RJ, et al. Murray & Nadel’s Textbook of Respiratory Medicine . 4th ed. London: Elsevier; 2005.

  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome. American Lung Association website. Available at: Accessed September 19, 2013.

  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated April 16, 2013. Accessed September 19, 2013.

  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated January 15, 2013. Accessed February 19, 2014.