Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome

Last Editorial Review: 8/11/2003

A new disease called SARS

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a respiratory illness that was first reported in Asia in February 2003. In early March, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global alert about SARS. Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. By late July, however, no new cases were being reported and the illness was considered contained. According to WHO, 8,437 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the course of this outbreak. Of those people who became sick, 813 died.

What are the symptoms and signs of SARS?

The clinical criteria for the diagnosis of SARS are:

  • One or more signs or symptoms of respiratory illness including cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, hypoxia, or radiographic (X-ray) findings of pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome AND
  • Fever (>38° C [100.4° F]) AND

If I were exposed to SARS, how long would it take for me to become sick?

The incubation period for SARS is typically 2-7 days; however, isolated reports have suggested an incubation period as long as 10 days. The illness usually begins with a fever (>100.4°F [>38.0°C]) (see signs and symptoms, above).

How is SARS spread?

The primary way that SARS appears to spread is by close person-to-person contact. Most cases of SARS have involved people who cared for or lived with someone with SARS, or people who had direct contact with infectious material (for example, respiratory secretions) from a person with SARS. Potential ways in which SARS can spread include touching the skin of other people or objects that are contaminated with infectious droplets and then touching your eye(s), nose, or mouth. This can happen when someone who is sick with SARS coughs or sneezes droplets onto themselves, other people, or nearby surfaces.

It also is possible that SARS may spread more broadly through the air or by other ways that are not now known.

Who got sick with SARS?

Most of the U.S. cases of SARS occurred among travelers returning from other parts of the world with SARS. There were very few cases as a result of spread to close contacts, such as family members and health-care workers. SARS did not spread more widely in the community in the United States.

What is the cause of SARS?

SARS is caused by a previously unrecognized coronavirus, called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). It is possible that other infectious agents might have a role in some cases of SARS.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that have a halo or crown-like (corona) appearance when viewed under a microscope. These viruses are a common cause of mild to moderate upper-respiratory illness in humans and are associated with respiratory, gastrointestinal, liver and neurologic disease in animals. Coronaviruses can survive in the environment for as long as three hours.

Is there a test for SARS?

No "test" is available yet for SARS; however, CDC, in collaboration with WHO and other laboratories, has developed 2 research tests that appear to be very promising in detecting antibodies to the new coronavirus. CDC is working to refine and share this testing capability as soon as possible with laboratories across the United States and internationally.


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Last Editorial Review: 8/11/2003
This information has been provided with the kind permission of the Centers For Disease Control (