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 disease caused by 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 have not been any cases of SARS reported anywhere in the world since 2004 and 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 various countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, Singapore and Vietnam. 

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

The SARS outbreak was declared over in July 2003. More than 8000 cases and 774 deaths were recorded. There are currently no known SARS-affected regions worldwide. However, global surveillance continues by the World Health Organization and other international agencies.

What causes SARS?

SARS is caused by infection with a specific strain of the coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that usually cause mild respiratory illnesses like the common cold. In rare cases, coronaviruses can mutate and cause serious outbreaks like SARS. 

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 (2–7 days) and early stages of the illness, the risk of infecting other people seems to be very low. People with SARS tend to be most infectious to others after they become visibly ill, peaking towards the second week of symptoms.

What are the symptoms of SARS?

In general SARS is a flu-like illness that usually starts with a fever greater than 38°C and is often accompanied by tiredness, body aches and chills. Other symptoms include:

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

As the illness progresses, some people will experience a dry cough that may progressively worsen and lead to trouble breathing. 

While most people with SARS are unwell with an illness that resembles the flu, and then recover completely, some can develop pneumonia (lung infection), which can be fatal. Most deaths have occurred in older individuals with preexisting medical conditions.

How is SARS diagnosed?

There have been no reports of SARS anywhere in the world since 2004. Even in the absence of a SARS outbreak, it is still a good idea to consult a doctor when you come back from overseas if you get a fever, respiratory tract symptoms and/or diarrhoea. 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?

There is no specific treatment for SARS. The best thing you can do is rest at home until you feel better. Stay home from work or school and away from other people while you are unwell. People with severe infection usually require admission to hospital for treatment.

How can I prevent getting SARS?

There is currently no vaccine to protect against SARS. However, there have been no reports of SARS anywhere in the world since 2004. Preventive measures against SARS are similar to those you would use to avoid getting or spreading influenza or the common cold , and involve general hygiene measures, such as:

  • regular hand washing
  • frequent disinfecting of surfaces
  • coughing coughs and sneezes
  • 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. Last reviewed: 10 Aug 2020