Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

4-minute read

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a disease that can cause severe pneumonia. An outbreak of SARS spread from China to several other countries in 2002-2003. There have been no outbreaks since, but there is still a risk that one will happen in the future.

What is severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an illness caused by the SARS associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). Coronaviruses are found in many different species, including birds and mammals, and include the virus that causes the common cold. The virus that causes SARS had never been seen in humans before. 

The first outbreak of SARS began in China and spread to 30 other countries including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Canada and Singapore. The World Health Organization coordinated an international campaign to diagnose, track and contain the disease. It was successfully contained a few months later, after 8,400 cases and about 900 deaths. 

About 1 in 10 infected people died in the 2002-2003 outbreak, mainly those aged over 60. About 1 in 5 people who were infected were healthcare workers. There was only one case of SARS in Australia, in someone who became infected in her home country and visited New South Wales.

How is SARS spread?

The SARS outbreak is thought to have started when the virus spread from an animal to a human, most likely from an infected civet (a small, cat-like animal). It then spread from person to person via contaminated droplets which became airborne due to coughing or sneezing. The virus can also be spread if you have direct contact with a person’s contaminated hands. However, it is thought you need to have close contact with an infected person to catch the disease.

Symptoms of SARS 

People with SARS first develop a fever (over 38°C) followed by a cough, pneumonia, or breathing difficulties. Other symptoms of SARS include:

These common symptoms could have many causes. They are only likely to be due to SARS if you have been in close contact with someone who has the disease, or if you have travelled to a country where there is an outbreak. Symptoms usually develop 2 to 7 days after you are exposed to the virus, although sometimes they can take as long as 10 days to appear.

Diagnosis of SARS

Several laboratory tests can be used to diagnose SARS. If you have symptoms and think you could have been in contact with someone who has the disease, your doctor will take swabs from your nose and throat as well as a blood test. They might also order an x-rays of your chest to see if you have pneumonia.

Treatment for SARS

There is no cure for SARS. If you develop severe pneumonia, you might need to go to hospital and have artificial ventilation in an intensive care unit.

Preventing a SARS outbreak

There is no vaccine against SARS. If you think you may have the disease, it is important to tell your doctor right away so you can be isolated to ensure you don’t infect other people.

A new SARS outbreak would involve an international public health response to control infection and protect healthcare workers.

If there were to be a new outbreak, there are things you can do to protect yourself:

  • wash your hands often with soap and running water, especially after blowing your nose or sneezing, after going to the toilet, and before preparing food or touching other people
  • cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • use a surgical mask around people who are coughing or sneezing and keep your distance
  • use a tissue to blow your nose and dispose of it straight away
  • stay at home if you are sick

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Factsheet

Read more on NSW Health website

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome SARS

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is caused by a virus called SARS-associated coronovirus.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) | HealthEngine Blog

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a contagious lung infection which causes bleeding in the lungs and severe breathing difficulty. It can be fatal.

Read more on HealthEngine website

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) - Better Health Channel

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a potentially fatal type of pneumonia caused by a virus called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). There is currently no cure or vaccine. Treatment options include medications and supportive care, such as mechanical ventilation to assist breathing.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Department of Health | Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) case definition

This document contains the case definitions for Severe acute respiratory syndrome which is nationally notifiable within Australia. This definition should be used to determine whether a case should be notified.

Read more on Department of Health website

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) - including symptoms, treatment and prevention :: SA Health

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a respiratory illness caused by a virus called SARS associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV).

Read more on SA Health website

MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) fact sheet - Fact sheets

MERS-CoV fact sheet

Read more on NSW Health website

Department of Health | Australian national notifiable diseases and case definitions

The Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) has agreed that the following list of communicable diseases are to be notified nationally and provided to the Commonwealths National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS). CDNA has developed the Surveillance Case Definitions available on this page.

Read more on Department of Health website

Notifiable disease reporting :: SA Health

When and how clinicians should notify SA Health of the occurance of notifiable diseases under the Public & Environmental Health Act

Read more on SA Health website

Notification of infectious diseases and related conditions

Notifiable infectious diseases must be reported the Department of Health (the Department).

Read more on WA Health website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo