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What is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated May 17, 2024
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Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a severe respiratory disease caused by exposure to human coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV. Inducing a particularly deadly form of pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome was first discovered in 2003 when it garnered the complete attention of the World Health Organization (WHO) as it was determined an immediate threat to the health of the world's populations. Treatment for this highly contagious condition necessitates an adherence to strict protocol, including hospitalization and aggressive antiviral drug therapy to eliminate the bacterial infection, prevent complications, and reduce the risk for widespread outbreak.

Individuals may be exposed to the human coronavirus nearly two weeks prior to becoming symptomatic. Severe acute respiratory syndrome possesses its own pattern of tell-tale symptoms, including respiratory difficulty, fever, and headache. Common flu-like symptoms, including widespread muscle ache, chills, and persistent cough, may also manifest in the presence of SARS. Some individuals may demonstrate additional symptoms that can include nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

The transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome generally occurs through the inhalation of bacterium that is present in the air after an infected individual sneezes or coughs. The bacterium may also be passed through touch when individuals fail to wash their hands after coming into direct contact with objects laden with the SARS virus and subsequently rub their eyes or otherwise touch the delicate membranes of the nose and mouth. It has been asserted that the bacterium's ability to live on inanimate objects may give it the ability to promote reinfection, as occurs with other forms of coronavirus-inspired illnesses.

The SARS virus was initially discovered in 2003 and quickly became a serious health threat. The ease with which the disease was transmitted coupled with the convenience of international travel fueled the occurrences of numerous reported cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome on nearly every continent. As the WHO continued to research the nature of the disease, the near-pandemic subsided almost as quickly as it had begun.

Since its initial discovery, suggested measures to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome have been established. Those who frequently travel abroad are encouraged to check for SARS-based health advisories and plan their trips accordingly. If travel to infected locales is unavoidable, the use of face masks and other personal protective equipment is highly encouraged. Proactive measures, including practicing conscientious personal hygiene like regularly washing one's hands, are also recommended to reduce the risk for transmission. Common precautions, such as not drinking after others or sharing eating utensils, are also suggested to reduce one’s risk for infection.

A diagnosis of SARS is generally made with the aid of a variety of diagnostic tests that may be administered following an initial physical examination. Abnormal respiratory sounds detected with the aid of a stethoscope may prompt the administration of imaging tests, including X-ray and computerized tomography (CT) scan, of the chest area and blood tests to check for markers indicative of SARS, such as lowered white blood cells and potassium. Tests designed to detect SARS-specific markers, such as antibodies that develop in the presence of SARS antigens, may also be administered to confirm a diagnosis.

Prompt and appropriate treatment is essential for a positive prognosis. The severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak of 2003 prompted the establishment of strict treatment protocols to reduce the risk of disease transmission and additional outbreaks. Individuals with suspected severe acute respiratory syndrome infection are required to be hospitalized in isolation, meaning there is no contact with the general hospital population, friends, or family. Intravenously administered medications, including antiviral and steroidal drugs, and mechanical ventilation are commonly given to fight the underlying infection and ease the individual’s ability to breathe. In the presence of delayed or absent treatment, individuals with SARS may develop respiratory and organ failure resulting in death.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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