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SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)


What is severe acute respiratory syndrome?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a condition caused by a virus that damages the air sacs of the lungs. The lung tissues become inflamed and scarred. The damaged air sacs do not allow oxygen to get into your bloodstream, which may cause respiratory failure. Respiratory failure means you cannot breathe well enough to get oxygen to the cells of your body. The SARS virus is related to other viruses that cause common colds and diarrhea. It may be found in saliva, sputum, or discharge from the nose of an infected person.

The Lungs

What increases my risk for SARS?

  • You breathe in the germs when an infected person coughs or sneezes near you. This is the most common way that SARS spreads.
  • You share utensils or shake hands with an infected person.
  • You have had close contact with someone who became sick within 10 days of returning from a SARS outbreak area.
  • You live with, visit, or care for someone who has SARS.
  • You travel to an area where SARS has spread, such as mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Canada.

What are the signs and symptoms of SARS?

Signs and symptoms usually appear 4 to 10 days after you have been exposed to the SARS virus:

  • Chills and a high fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • Headache, body aches and pains, and weakness
  • Diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
  • Cough and shortness of breath (may appear 2 to 7 days after the start of the first symptoms)

How is SARS diagnosed?

Healthcare providers may diagnose SARS based on your signs and symptoms and recent travel history. They may also want to know if you had a possible exposure to someone infected with SARS. You may also need one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood gases: This is also called an arterial blood gas, or ABG. Blood is taken from an artery (blood vessel) in your wrist, arm, or groin. Your blood is tested for the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in it. The results can tell healthcare providers how well your lungs are working.
  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give healthcare providers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.
  • Chest x-ray: This is a picture of your lungs and heart. Healthcare providers use it to see how your lungs and heart are doing. Healthcare providers may use the x-ray to look for signs of infection like pneumonia, or to look for collapsed lungs. Chest x-rays may show tumors, broken ribs, or fluid around the heart and lungs.
  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your lungs. The pictures may show pneumonia. You may be given a dye to help your lungs show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.
  • Culture or assays: Respiratory fluids may be collected, such as mucus from your throat or nose. A sample of your urine or bowel movement may also be sent to a lab for tests. These may show which germ is causing your disease and help healthcare providers plan the best treatment for you.

How is SARS treated?

There is no medicine to treat SARS. Healthcare providers will treat symptoms or pneumonia caused by SARS. You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines: You may be given medicines to relieve your fever, cough, and pain. Antivirals may also be given. You may also need medicines to help decrease swelling in your lungs and help you breathe easier.
  • Respiratory support:
    • You may need extra oxygen if your blood oxygen level is lower than it should be. You may get oxygen through a mask placed over your nose and mouth or through small tubes placed in your nostrils. Ask your healthcare provider before you take off the mask or oxygen tubing.
    • Endotracheal (ET) tube: An endotracheal tube may be put into your mouth or nose. It goes down into your windpipe to help keep your airway open and help you breathe. It may be hooked to a ventilator (breathing machine), and you may get extra oxygen through your ET tube. You will not be able to talk while the ET tube is in place.

What are the risks of SARS?

SARS is a serious, life-threatening disease, and treatment should not be delayed. If not treated early, the SARS virus may badly damage your lungs and cause further breathing problems. SARS may lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia causes the lungs to become swollen and filled with fluid. Fluid in the lungs causes severe shortness of breath and may lead to respiratory failure. Respiratory failure means you cannot breathe well enough to get oxygen to the cells of your body. This may affect your heart and brain and be life-threatening.

How can SARS be prevented?

  • When traveling:
    • If you must travel to an area with a SARS outbreak, avoid being around large groups of people. You may also need to bring disposable (single-use) gloves or masks with you.
    • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Germ-killing hand lotions or gels may be used when there is no water available.
  • When caring for someone who has SARS:
    • Always wash your hands, especially before and after you go into the person's room.
    • Do not share bedding, linens, or eating utensils with the person.
    • Have the infected person wear a mask when others are in the room with him. If he cannot wear a mask, help him cover his mouth or nose when he coughs or sneezes.
    • Place wet laundry in a plastic bag and use hot water and soap to wash it.
    • Throw away paper tissue after it has been used to wipe or blow the person's nose.
    • Use alcohol or chlorine-based disinfectants (germ killers) when you clean surfaces. Wear disposable gloves, mask, and a gown to protect yourself.
    • Have everyone who is in close contact with the person go in to be tested for SARS.

How can I prevent spreading SARS to others if I am infected?

  • Do not have visitors in your room, especially when you still have symptoms.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with tissue when you sneeze or cough.
  • Inform your healthcare providers that you may have SARS before they come in direct contact with you. This will warn them so they can protect themselves and their staff from the SARS virus.
  • Stay away from others until your healthcare provider says you can no longer spread the SARS virus. You may need to stay home until you are free of SARS symptoms for 10 days or longer. Do not go to work, school, or other public areas until your healthcare provider says it is okay.
  • Wash your hands before and after you eat, touch objects or people, and go to the bathroom.
  • Wear a mask when other people are in the room with you.

Where can I find more information?

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    1600 Clifton Road
    Atlanta , GA 30333
    Phone: 1- 404 - 6393311
    Phone: 1- 800 - 3113435
    Web Address:
  • World Health Organization
    Web Address:

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You are coughing up bloody sputum.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have sudden shortness of breath.
  • You have a fast heartbeat or chest pain.
  • You feel so dizzy that you have trouble standing up.
  • Your lips and fingernails turn blue.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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