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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

By Craig R. Pringle, BSc, PhD, Professor Emeritus, School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick

Severe acute respiratory syndrome is a viral infection that causes flu-like symptoms.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was first detected in China in late 2002. A worldwide outbreak occurred, resulting in more than 8,000 cases worldwide, including Canada and the United States, and more than 800 deaths by mid 2003. As of 2014, no cases had been reported worldwide since 2004 and SARS (the disease, but not the virus) is considered to have been eradicated. The source was thought to be civet cats, which had been infected through contact with an infected bat before being sold in a live meat market. Bats often carry the virus, and the virus is probably still present in bats.

SARS is caused by a coronavirus. SARS is much more severe than most other coronavirus infections, which usually cause only coldlike symptoms. However, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (see Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)) is another severe illness caused by a coronavirus.


Symptoms of SARS resemble those of other more common respiratory viral infections but are more severe. They include fever, headache, chills, and muscle aches, followed by a dry cough and sometimes difficulty breathing.

Most people recover within 1 to 2 weeks. However, some develop severe difficulty breathing, and about 10% died.


  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Tests to identify the virus

SARS is suspected only if people who may have been exposed to an infected person have a fever plus a cough or difficulty breathing.

Tests can be done to identify the virus.

Prevention and Treatment

  • Isolation

  • If needed, oxygen

  • Sometimes a ventilator to help with breathing

If doctors think a person may have SARS, the person is isolated in a room with a ventilation system that limits the spread of microorganisms in the air. In the first and only outbreak of SARS, such isolation kept the virus from being transmitted and eventually eliminated it.

People with mild symptoms need no specific treatment. Those with moderate difficulty breathing may need to be given oxygen. Those with severe difficulty breathing may need mechanical ventilation to aid breathing.