Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) - including symptoms, treatment and prevention

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a respiratory illness caused by a virus called SARS associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. Over the next few months the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in Asia, North America, South America and Europe, before the SARS global outbreak in 2003 was contained. There was a second small outbreak in China in 2004.

There is no evidence at this stage of ongoing transmission anywhere in the world. It is not known if a SARS epidemic will recur.

The organism that causes SARS is a new type of virus belonging to the coronaviruses family of viruses, which is one of the virus families that cause the common cold. Coronaviruses have been found in many different animal species including birds and mammals.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a notifiable condition1

How SARS is spread

SARS-CoV is thought to have passed from animals to humans through close contact, butchering or eating undercooked meat in parts of southern China.

The main way that SARS seemed to spread was by close person-to-person contact. The virus that causes SARS is thought to be spread when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes small droplets containing infectious agents into the air. The droplets in the air may be breathed in by those nearby. Infection may be spread by contact with hands, tissues and other articles soiled by infected nose and throat discharges. People in very close contact with a sick SARS patient are at most risk.

In addition, it is possible that the SARS virus might spread in other ways that are not currently known.

Signs and symptoms of SARS

Symptoms of SARS include:

  • high fever (temperature greater than 38°C), which is often the first symptom
  • cough
  • pneumonia (lung infection or inflammation)
  • breathing difficulties (about 20% require artificial ventilation in an intensive care unit)
  • headache
  • chills
  • muscle aches
  • poor appetite
  • dizziness
  • diarrhoea (in 10 to 20% of patients)
  • sore throat.

These symptoms are commonly seen with other types of infection and are not specific to SARS. During the outbreak, SARS was suspected if a patient had:

  • a fever of 38°C or greater
  • respiratory symptoms
  • history of travel to a SARS affected area or close contact with a known SARS patient within 10 days before the fever or respiratory symptoms started.

Diagnosis of SARS

There are several laboratory tests used to detect SARS-CoV and other causes of respiratory illness.

Incubation period

(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)

Usually 2 to 7 days, although it may be up to 10 days.

Infectious period

(time during which an infected person can infect others)

Uncertain, but is thought to be for less than 21 days after the onset of symptoms. People who are infected with the virus but do not yet have symptoms are not thought to be infectious.

Treatment for SARS

No specific antiviral treatment is available for SARS.

Prevention of SARS

Special precautions are needed for people who are suspected of having SARS and their carers. These will be made advised by public health authorities if SARS recurs.

In general, to reduce spread of respiratory infections:

  • Stay at home if you are sick
  • Wash your hands often and well, with soap and running water
  • Wash your hands especially after going to the toilet, after blowing your nose or sneezing, and before preparing food
  • Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing. Dispose of soiled tissues appropriately.

Useful links

1 – In South Australia the law requires doctors and laboratories to report some infections or diseases to SA Health. These infections or diseases are commonly referred to as 'notifiable conditions'.