Navigate Up

Full Library - A-Z Index


Print This Page

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a serious form of pneumonia. It is caused by a virus that was first identified in 2003. Infection with the SARS virus causes acute respiratory distress (severe breathing difficulty) and sometimes death.

SARS is a dramatic example of how quickly world travel can spread a disease. It is also an example of how quickly a connected health system can respond to a new health threat.

Background Information:

World Health Organization (WHO) physician Dr. Carlo Urbani identified SARS as a new disease in 2003. He diagnosed it in a 48-year-old businessman who had traveled from the Guangdong province of China, through Hong Kong, to Hanoi, Vietnam. The businessman and the doctor who first diagnosed SARS both died from the illness.

In the meantime, SARS was spreading. Quickly it infected thousands of people around the world, including people in Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Schools closed throughout Hong Kong and Singapore. National economies were affected.

The WHO identified SARS as a global health threat, and issued a travel advisory. WHO updates closely tracked the spread of SARS. It wasn't clear whether SARS would become a global pandemic.

The fast global public health response helped to stem the spread of the virus. By June 2003, the number of new cases was down enough that on June 7, the WHO stopped its daily reports. But even though the number of new cases dwindled and travel advisories began to be lifted, every new case had the potential to spark another outbreak.

SARS appears to be here to stay. It has changed the way that the world responds to infectious diseases during a time of widespread international travel. The 2003 outbreak had an estimated 8,000 cases and 750 deaths. Deaths occurred mainly in older patients.

Alternative Names

SARS

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

SARS is caused by a member of the coronavirus family of viruses (the same family that can cause the common cold ). It is believed the 2003 epidemic started when the virus spread from small mammals in China.

When someone with SARS coughs or sneezes, infected droplets spray into the air. You can catch the SARS virus if you breathe in or touch these particles. The SARS virus may live on hands, tissues, and other surfaces for up to 6 hours in these droplets and up to 3 hours after the droplets have dried.

While the spread of droplets through close contact caused most of the early SARS cases, SARS might also spread by hands and other objects the droplets has touched. Airborne transmission is a real possibility in some cases. Live virus has even been found in the stool of people with SARS, where it has been shown to live for up to 4 days. The virus may be able to live for months or years when the temperature is below freezing.

With other coronaviruses, becoming infected and then getting sick again (re-infection) is common. This may also be the case with SARS.

Symptoms usually occur about 2 to 10 days after coming in contact with the virus. There have been some cases where the illness started sooner or later after first contact. People with active symptoms of illness are contagious, but it is not known for how long a person may be contagious before or after symptoms appear.

Symptoms

The hallmark symptoms are:

  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever greater than 100.4 degrees F (38.0 degrees C)
  • Other breathing symptoms

The most common symptoms are:

  • Chills and shaking
  • Cough -- usually starts 2-3 days after other symptoms
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches

Less common symptoms include:

  • Cough that produces phlegm (sputum)
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat

In some people, the lung symptoms get worse during the second week of illness, even after the fever has stopped.

Signs and tests

Your health care provider may hear abnormal lung sounds while listening to your chest with a stethoscope. In most people with SARS, changes on a chest x-ray or chest CT show pneumonia, which is typical with SARS.

Tests used to diagnose SARS might include:

Tests used to quickly identify the virus that causes SARS include:

  • Antibody tests for SARS
  • Direct isolation of the SARS virus
  • Rapid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for SARS virus

All current tests have some limitations. They may not be able to easily identify a SARS case during the first week of the illness, when it is most important.

Treatment

People who are thought to have SARS should be checked right away by a health care provider. If they are suspected of having SARS, they should be kept isolated in the hospital.

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics to treat bacteria that cause pneumonia
  • Antiviral medications (although how well they work for SARS is unknown)
  • High doses of steroids to reduce swelling in the lungs
  • Oxygen, breathing support (mechanical ventilation), or chest therapy

In some serious cases, the liquid part of blood from people who have already recovered from SARS has been given as a treatment.

There is no strong evidence that these treatments work well. There is evidence that the antiviral medication, ribavirin, does not work.

Expectations (prognosis)

The death rate from SARS was 9 to 12% of those diagnosed. In people over age 65, the death rate was higher than 50%. The illness was milder in younger patients.

Many more people became sick enough to need breathing assistance. And even more people had to go to hospital intensive care units.

Public health policies have been effective at controlling outbreaks. Many nations have stopped the epidemic in their own countries. All countries must continue to be careful to keep this disease under control. Viruses in the coronavirus family are known for their ability to change (mutate) in order to spread among humans.

Complications

  • Respiratory failure
  • Liver failure
  • Heart failure

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you or someone you have been in close contact with has SARS.

Prevention

Reducing your contact with people who have SARS lowers your risk for the disease. Avoid travel to places where there is an uncontrolled SARS outbreak. When possible, avoid direct contact with persons who have SARS until at least 10 days after their fever and other symptoms are gone.

  • Hand hygiene is the most important part of SARS prevention. Wash your hands or clean them with an alcohol-based instant hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. Droplets that are released when a person sneezes or coughs are infectious.
  • Do not share food, drink, or utensils.
  • Clean commonly touched surfaces with an EPA-approved disinfectant.

In some situations, masks and goggles may be useful for preventing the spread of the disease. You may use gloves when handling any items that may have touched infected droplets.

References

Anderson LJ. Coronaviruses. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 389.

McIntosh K, Perlman S. Coronaviruses including severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (SARS)-associated coronavirus. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Disease. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 155.

Updated: 1/28/2013

Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com