What is SARS?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a respiratory illness caused by a virus. The illness usually begins with a high fever. Patients also may have chills or other symptoms, including headache, general feeling of discomfort, body aches and diarrhea. Some individuals’ illness also may begin with mild respiratory symptoms. After two to seven days, SARS patients may develop a dry cough that might be accompanied by or progress to a condition which the person does not have sufficient oxygen. Most SARS patients develop pneumonia.

What is the cause of SARS?

SARS is caused by a virus which is a member of the coronavirus group. Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that have a halo or crown-like (corona) appearance when viewed under an electron microscope. Some of these viruses are a common cause of mild to moderate upper- respiratory illness in humans. They are also known to cause disease in animals. The coronavirus which causes SARS was not previously known to cause human illness.

If I were exposed to SARS, how long would it take for me to become sick?

The time between exposure to the SARS virus and onset of symptoms is called the “incubation period.” The incubation period for SARS is typically two to seven days, although in some cases it may be as long as 10 days.

How is SARS spread?

The SARS virus is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and respiratory droplets are propelled through the air and deposited on persons or nearby surfaces. Persons in close contact with SARS patients are more likely to become infected than persons with casual contact. Close contact is defined as having cared for or lived with a person known to have SARS or having a high likelihood of direct contact with respiratory secretions and/or body fluids of a person known to have SARS. Examples include kissing or embracing, sharing eating or drinking utensils, close conversation (within 3 feet), nursing care, and any other direct physical contact. Close contact does not include activities such as walking by a person or sitting across a waiting room or office for a brief time.

How long is a person with SARS infectious to others?

Available information suggests that people with SARS are most likely to be infectious only when they have symptoms, such as fever or cough. However, as a precaution against spreading the disease, people with SARS should stay at home until 10 days after their symptoms have gone away. Patients are most infectious during the second week of illness.

What should I do if I think I may have SARS?

If you think you or someone in your family may have SARS, you should call your physician as soon as possible. Call ahead and tell them before you visit so they can take precautions to keep from exposing other people. Your physician may wish to do some laboratory testing to confirm whether you have SARS. If you have SARS, a list of precautions will be given to you and other household members to follow until you are well.

If there is another outbreak of SARS, how can I protect myself?

There are precautions that you can take that can prevent the spread of many infectious diseases. The most important is frequent hand washing with soap and warm water or use of alcohol-based hand rubs. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Encourage others to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and to dispose of tissues after use. Finally, avoid sharing drinks, cigarettes, eating utensils or other items that may come in contact with respiratory secretions or body fluids.

Are there disinfectants available that can kill the SARS virus?

Right now, there are no disinfectant products registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use on environmental surfaces that are specifically listed as having the ability to kill the SARS virus. However, similar viruses can be killed with bleach, ammonia or alcohol, or cleaning agents containing any of these disinfectants. Cleaning agents should be used according to the manufacturer's instructions.

What is the history of SARS?

SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. In early March 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global alert about SARS. Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. By late July, however, no new cases were being reported and the illness was considered contained. According to WHO, more than 8,000 people worldwide became ill with SARS during this outbreak; of these, 813 died. The United States had eight laboratory confirmed cases. Illinois had no laboratory confirmed cases during the outbreak. SARS cases reported in the United States occurred primarily among people who traveled to SARS-affected areas; a small number of other people became ill after being in close contact with a SARS patient while in the United States. There was no evidence that SARS spread more widely in the community in the United States.

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Illinois Department of Public Health
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