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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) - Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) - Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

4 min read


SARS is a respiratory disease caused by a virus. Read this article to know more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment.

Written by

Dr. Lochana .k

Medically reviewed by

Dr. C. Elanchezhian

Published At May 15, 2020
Reviewed AtJune 10, 2024

What Is SARS?

SARS is a severe acute respiratory syndrome. It is caused by the SARS coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV. Coronaviruses cause infections in animals and humans. The SARS outbreak is highly contagious. If it leads to pneumonia, the risk becomes higher. The first case of SARS was reported in February 2003 in Asia. After a few months, the disease spread to places like South America, North America, and Europe. SARS-CoV-2, which is a positive-sense single-stranded RNA virus that is responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic, is a new strain of coronavirus.

What Is Viral Mutation?

A mutation can be explained as a change in the genetic material or information that is stored. Viruses are organisms that keep changing due to evolution. All the recent outbreaks worldwide have been very life-threatening. The main reason for them is a few viruses and their genetic mutations. Initially, these viruses arise from animals, and later they are transmitted to humans. Some of the mutated viruses are:

  • SARS.

  • Bird flu. This mutated form of the flu virus is found in birds. This is also called avian flu.

  • HIV(human immunodeficiency virus). It is a mutated form of the virus found in monkeys.

  • Swine flu. The virus causing swine flu has undergone mutations during the transmission from the pig.

How Is It Transmitted?

  • SARS is transmitted by direct contact with the affected person, indirectly via touching the contaminated surfaces, and contact with airborne respiratory droplets. Having direct contact with the patients might include sharing towels, soaps, plates, drinking glasses, beds, etc. These kinds of sharing behaviors might be a good attitude in a family, but when it comes to SARS, this can cause transmission by the spread of respiratory secretions. Touching the affected person should be totally avoided.

  • There is no wrong with walking along with the person or sitting opposite to them. These might not cause direct contact with them. But, make sure to maintain a sufficient distance.

  • When an affected person coughs and sneezes, the sputum that is expelled from the mouth or nose gets transmitted to the other person through air or when they touch their mouth, nose, and eyes, knowingly or unknowingly with their contaminated hands.

What Are the Symptoms of SARS?

The symptoms of SARS include:

  • Fever. This symptom may not be seen in all patients.

  • Myalgia.

  • Diarrhea.

  • Headache.

  • Cough.

  • Sore throat.

  • Chills.

  • Body pain.

  • Hypoxia (insufficient supply of oxygen in the blood).

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Pneumonia.

If any severe respiratory illness is present, a person might need to report to the hospital. Only a few people get diarrhea. But if a person get it, the other symptoms can occur fastly. A dry cough can occur within two to five days. In severe cases, the patient might require the help of artificial oxygen.

What Is the Risk for Travelers?

At present, there are no identified cases of transmission. During the 2003 epidemic, the risk for travelers was relatively low. However, travelers should stay safe.

What Are the Complications?

The well-known complications of SARS:

  • Respiratory failure.

  • Heart failure.

  • Liver failure.

  • Pneumonia.

What Are the Risk Factors?

The common risk factors are:

  • Diabetes.

  • Hepatitis.

  • Aged people who are more than 60 years of age.

How Is It Diagnosed?

For diagnosis, the doctor will recommend the patient to perform a few laboratory tests. X-rays and CT (computed tomography) scans might be required. If a person has returned from a foreign trip, consult the doctor, and check for symptoms.

RT-PCR: Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction is a test that can identify the virus in stool, blood, and nasal secretions.

SerologicTesting: This test can detect SARS-CoV antibodies if it is present in the blood. If the patient has antibodies, they might possibly have a SARS infection.

Culture Testing: This test involves culturing a small sample of fluid or tissue in a container. This testing method may not be reliable if it is used for diagnosis in the early stages of infection.

If there is a new outbreak of SARS, a person should inform the doctor whether they are from the outbreak region. Avoid going to public places and maintain proper social distancing. If a person is a healthcare professional, they should take additional precautionary measures. A person should particularly stay away from kids, as they may be affected soon.

What Is the Treatment Option?

  • No medications have been identified till now. Due to the fast spread of the disease, many studies are performed to identify the spread and control of the disease.

  • Isolation can be the best choice for decreasing the number of cases.

  • People with mild symptoms can stay at home. This will prevent the spreading of the disease to healthy people.

  • Hospitalized patients require therapy based on supportive treatment protocols. Fluids, oxygen, and antibiotics might be required for other infections.

What Are the Preventive Measures?

Vaccines for SARS are under intensive research. Till now, studies have been conducted only in animals. Tests are not performed in humans as it is unethical and risky. In order to prevent the recurrence of SARS, follow the safety guidelines.

  • Wash the Hands - Washing the hands with soap and hot water is the best preventive measure. A person can also use alcohol-based rubs.

  • Washing Other Objects - Use hot water and soap to wash the utensils, bedding, and clothing, if a person is living with a person affected by SARS.

  • Wear a Mask - It is essential to cover the mouth and nose with a surgical mask. Wearing a mask might help a person to stay away from any type of infection. Especially when there is an outbreak of certain respiratory illnesses, a person might need a mask.

  • Use Disposable Gloves - Gloves should not only be worn by health care providers but by all individuals if a person is in a heavy exposure area. If a person is in contact with the person's body feces and fluids, it is necessary to wear disposable gloves. After a person is using the gloves, dispose of the gloves safely.

  • Disinfect All Surfaces - Use a proper disinfecting solution to clean the surfaces contaminated with saliva, mucus, sweat, vomit, stool, or urine.

All precautions should be followed for a minimum of 10 days, even after the symptoms are gone. Keep the children safe at home as the school may be the site of a high risk of infection. Do not allow the kids to play with pets. Always keep an eye on them. Wash the objects used by them with special care. Teach the children proper hygiene techniques.

If a person is suffering from a similar illness, call a doctor online and discuss the problems through voice calls or video calls.

Frequently Asked Questions


How Often Does SARS Cause Death?

The global death rate of SARS is about 10%(one in 10 affected individuals). The presence of risk factors such as the elderly population (over 65 years of age), any existing lung ailment, emphysema, and other infections increases the chances of death due to SARS.


Do Most People Recover From SARS?

The majority of the patients fully recover from SARS infection. However, the recovery potential depends on the percentage of lung damage and other individual factors (smoking, chronic illness, etc.). In normal healthy individuals, the pulmonary function usually returns to normal within 6 to 12 months.


What Are the Long-Term Effects Of SARS?

SARS affects the lungs and the severity of lung injury determines the long-term effects of SARS. A small percentage of affected individuals experience long-term effects such as anxiety, cough, difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath, and chronic lung disease.


What Are the Symptoms of Acute Respiratory Tract Infections?

Acute respiratory tract infections involve infections of breathing passages such as the throat, the sinuses, or the lungs. The symptoms include cough, runny nose, sore throat, headaches, tightness of the chest, breathlessness, and wheezing. Sometimes, high temperature is also recorded.


Is the COVID-19 Virus Related to the SARS Virus?

The coronavirus  responsible for Covid-19 is related to the SARS coronavirus that caused SARS outbreak in 2003. Both belong to the same family of viruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Covid-19 is also named SARS-CoV-2.


Are Vaccines Available for Preventing SARS?

Inactivated SARS-CoV vaccines are available for clinical use because they are easy to be generated. Currently,  recombinant SARS vaccines are available to prevent SARS. But, these vaccines require regular booster doses for preventing infections due to distinct genotypes of SARS-CoV.


Can SARS Be Treated With Antibiotics?

Most of the patients who are suspected of having SARS infection are initially treated with potent antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections. Antibiotics do not cure SARS but act as an adjunct medicine in controlling the spread of infection to the lungs and reducing lung damage.


What Is the Incubation Period for The SARS Virus?

The incubation period of the SARS virus is usually 2 to 10 days. Initially, the person is asymptomatic.  The first symptoms of the illness such as cough, chills, fever, and body pain occur generally within one week of exposure.


Does SARS Infection Provide Lifelong Immunity?

SARS infection provided immunity only for a shorter duration. SARS-specific antibodies are present in the body even after two years of infection. But reinfection occurs more than 3 years after initial SARS exposure.


Is the SARS Virus Mutating?

SARS virus is a RNA virus that does not mutate frequently like HIV or influenza viruses. But, its viral genes jump during replications causing multiple copies of the virus. This helps the SARS virus to jump from its animal reservoir to humans resulting in various variants of SARS. Some variants are harmless, but some cause serious illness in humans.
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Dr. Lochana .k
Dr. Lochana .k



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