Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

Also known as SARS

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral illness that usually starts with a high fever, followed by a cough and breathing difficulties.

Key points

  1. SARS is a type of coronavirus.
  2. Coronaviruses usually cause a mild disease, such as the common cold. In rare cases, coronaviruses can cause serious outbreaks, such as COVID-19 and SARS.
  3. Most people recover fully from SARS but some can develop life-threatening respiratory illness.
  4. There is currently no vaccine to protect against SARS.
  5. Preventive measures against SARS are the same as those to reduce risk of other infectious diseases, such as handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes.

SARS outbreak 2002–2003

SARS first appeared as a new disease in Southern China in November 2002, and then over the next few months spread to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Toronto (Canada), Singapore, Vietnam and other countries. 

New Zealand reported one probable SARS case in April 2003, with no further cases since then. 

The SARS outbreak ended in July 2003. There are currently no known SARS-affected regions worldwide. However, global surveillance continues by the World Health Organization and other international agencies.

In the event of a re-emergence of SARS, the Ministry of Health has plans in line with World Health Organization recommendations.

What cases SARS?

SARS is caused by infection with a strain of the coronavirus, one of a family of viruses that causes the common cold.

The main source of SARS transmission is through close contact with infected individuals. This can be through:

  • direct contact with the person, their bodily fluids or mucus
  • inhaling droplets in the air after an infected person has coughed or sneezed
  • touching objects or surfaces contaminated with infectious droplets (and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes).

During the incubation period (2–10 days) and early stages (1–2 days) of the illness, the risk of infecting other people seems to be very low. People who have caught the virus are most infectious to others after they become visibly ill, eg, when they show the full range of symptoms.

What are the symptoms of SARS?

In general SARS begins with a fever greater than 38 degrees Celsius. Other symptoms may include:

  • headaches
  • an overall feeling of discomfort
  • body aches
  • diarrhoea
  • mild respiratory symptoms
  • after 2–7 days, a dry cough and trouble breathing.

Most people are unwell for 6–7 days with an illness that resembles the flu, and then they recover completely. However, it can develop into a life-threatening pneumonia-like illness in some of those infected. Most deaths have occurred in people over the age of 40 who have existing conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease.

How is SARS diagnosed?

Even in the absence of a SARS outbreak, it is still a good idea to see a doctor when you come back from overseas if you get a fever, respiratory tract symptoms and/or diarrhoea within a month of your return. You may have contracted some other illness that requires attention. Read more about becoming ill after travel.

Phone first

As many illnesses can be infectious, phone your doctor’s rooms before going in and tell them your symptoms. Be sure to explain that you have recently been overseas. This allows them to take precautions on your arrival.

You can also phone Healthline free (within New Zealand) on 0800 611 116 for advice. Calls are answered by registered nurses or other health professionals.

What is the treatment for SARS?

People with severe cases may be admitted to hospital and will be treated in the same way as pneumonia.

How can I prevent getting SARS?

There is currently no vaccine to protect against SARS. Preventive measures against SARS are similar to those you would use to avoid getting or spreading influenza, and involve general hygiene measures, such as:

  • regular hand washing
  • frequent disinfecting of surfaces
  • coughing coughs and sneezes
  • as far as possible, avoiding close contact with infected people.

In the event of a re-emergence of SARS, specific advice and travel advisories would be issued by the Ministry of Health or other agencies.

Learn more

SafeTravel For official travel advisories (disease alerts and other travel issues)
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) Mayo Clinic, US
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) Medline Plus, US
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.