What Is SARS?

SARS is a viral respiratory illness with no reported cases since 2004

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SARS is a respiratory illness caused by a virus. "SARS" stands for "severe acute respiratory syndrome," and it is caused by a coronavirus, the same family of viruses that causes COVID-19. SARS produces symptoms such as high fever, headaches, muscle aches, and feelings of exhaustion. After a few days, respiratory symptoms, including cough and shortness of breath emerge.

There was a global outbreak of SARS in 2003. However, there have been no cases of SARS reported since 2004.

This article will cover the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of SARS. It will explain how SARS is different from COVID-19, and highlight that there have been no cases of SARS in 2004. 

Man coughing

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SARS Symptoms

SARS symptoms usually appear two to seven days after a person is exposed to the virus that causes SARS. The first symptom that most people experience is a high fever. They might also experience chills and rigors (periods of intense shivering). After the fever, many people experience headaches and muscle aches. They generally feel tired and unwell.

About three to seven days after the fever sets in, respiratory symptoms begin. Most often, this starts with a dry cough that is unproductive, meaning it doesn’t bring up mucus. Many people experience shortness of breath, which can lead to low oxygen levels. In addition, people with SARS can experience low platelet counts.

Causes

SARS is caused by a virus called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). A coronavirus is a type of viral infection. Although you may know about coronaviruses because of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there are a host of other coronaviruses that can make people ill.

SARS and COVID-19 are both caused by coronaviruses, but they are different illnesses with different symptoms. SARS is caused by SARS-CoV, while COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2.

SARS-CoV can be spread by respiratory droplets of a person who is infected. These droplets can travel about three feet when a person sneezes or coughs. SARS can also be spread through feces. If another person touches one of these droplets and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth they can contract the virus. After that, symptoms may appear two to 10 days later.

Diagnosis

SARS is diagnosed through testing that looks for the SAR-CoV virus. This can be done using nasal, throat, or rectal swabs.

No SARS cases have been diagnosed anywhere in the world since 2004. 

Treatment

SARS must be treated in a hospital. The patient should be put in isolation, to reduce the risk of passing the infection to anyone else.

In the hospital, people with SARS can be treated with:

  • Antiviral medications to fight the SARS-CoV virus
  • Antibiotics to fight secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia
  • Steroids to reduce lung swelling
  • Breathing support, including ventilators or supplemental oxygen

Up to 20% of people with SARS will need the support of a ventilator. Although you are unlikely to contract SARS since cases have not been recorded since 2004, you should seek medical attention if you experience its symptoms, such as trouble breathing.

Prognosis

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, 8,098 people became infected with SARS around the globe. Of these, 774 died. Only eight confirmed SARS diagnoses have been made in the United States.

Summary

"SARS" stands for "severe acute respiratory syndrome." SARS is an illness caused by the SARS-CoV virus. Symptoms include a high fever, body aches, feeling unwell, and respiratory symptoms including a dry cough and shortness of breath. No cases of SARS have been detected globally since 2004.

A Word From Verywell

It’s extremely unlikely that you or a loved one has SARS. No cases of SARS have been diagnosed globally since 2004. The virus that causes SARS, SARS-CoV, and the virus that causes COVID-19, SAR-CoV-2, are both coronaviruses, but they are different illnesses with different diagnoses and treatment protocols. Anytime you are concerned about respiratory illness, contact your healthcare provider for advice. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is SARS-CoV-2?

    SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19. It is a type of coronavirus that is spread through respiratory droplets. The SARS-CoV-2 virus was first detected in 2019.

  • What is SARS?

    "SARS" stands for "severe acute respiratory syndrome." It is a respiratory disease that causes symptoms including high fever, chills, body aches, cough and trouble breathing. SARS is caused by the SARS-CoV virus. After a global outbreak in 2003, SARS has not been detected globally since 2014.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Health Organization. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. What is coronavirus?

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basics of COVID-19.

  5. National Health Service. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

  6. Chan, Paul K. S., Wing-Kin To, King-Cheung Ng, Rebecca K. Y. Lam, Tak-Keung Ng, Rickjason C. W. Chan, Alan Wu, et al. Laboratory diagnosis of SARS. Emerging Infectious Diseases 10, no. 5 (May 2004): 825–31. doi: 10.3201/eid1005.030682.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.