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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

What is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)?

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS is a viral respiratory infection similar to pneumonia.

How common is it?

During the initial outbreak of SARS, between November 2002 and July 2003, there were 251 suspected infections in Canada, with most cases occurring in Toronto. The first Canadian cases were identified in March 2003 in people who had travelled to Hong Kong and returned to Canada.

SARS demonstrated how quickly a virus can spread internationally.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that since 2004 there have been no known cases of SARS anywhere in the world.

What are the symptoms of SARS?

The main symptoms of SARS included both a fever over 38°C (100.4°F) and respiratory problems. The illness begins with a fever greater than 38°C. The fever is associated with chills, headache, muscular stiffness, loss of appetite, malaise, dry cough and shortness of breath, or breathing difficulties.

What is the cause of SARS?

SARS is caused by a virus, called SARS-associated coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that also include the common cold. Current research suggests that the SARS-associated coronavirus evolved from one or more animal viruses into this new strain.

How long does SARS take to develop?

The incubation period for SARS ranges in general from 2 to 10 days.

How is SARS transmitted?

SARS is spread from person to person through close contact. Examples of close contact include having cared for or lived with a person known to have SARS, or had direct contact with droplets from coughing or sneezing of someone affected by SARS. The virus also may spread when a person touches a surface contaminated with infectious fluids and then touches his mouth, nose, or eyes.

Which occupations are at risk?

People caring for individuals with SARS are at the greatest risk for contracting the disease. Those people at risk include all health care workers in institutional settings, such as acute care hospitals, rehabilitation hospitals, mental health hospitals, long term care facilities, and emergency departments, and others who work close to their clients or patients.

Persons living with individuals with SARS are also at risk for contracting the disease.

What are the recommendations to prevent transmission of SARS?

If a new SARS outbreak or similar epidemic occurs, the guidelines below should help prevent transmission. In addition, check with organizations such as Health Canada, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) who will be monitoring any new situation, and will include infection control guidance for workers at risk.

Hand Washing

Hand washing is the most important hygiene measure in preventing the spread of infection. Hands must be washed before and after contact with a patient. After contact with body fluids and after contact with items known to be contaminated with respiratory secretions. Plain soap may be used for routine hand washing.

Disposable Gloves

Gloves should be used as an additional measure, not as a substitute for hand washing. Gloves must be put on before contact with the patient and they should be removed and hands washed before leaving the patient's room.


Long sleeved gowns should be worn by all health care workers if direct contact with the patient is anticipated.

Facemasks and Eye Protection

Most often surgical masks are recommended to be worn by all health care workers interacting directly with patients that have an infectious disease. The mask must cover the users mouth and nose. After handling a used mask, wash hands immediately.

A surgical mask can effectively block splashes and large-particle droplets. However, they are not designed to filter or block smaller particles in the air. Because of this, surgical masks cannot provide complete protection from germs or contaminants.

In future outbreaks, other respirators may be recommended for use by health care workers in contact with infected patients. For more information on respirators please see:

Eye protection or face shields (with safety glasses or goggles) are also recommended for health care workers where there is a potential for splattering or spraying of blood or other body fluids.

Cleaning and Disinfecting

For general cleaning, soap and hot water can be used to clean the utensils, bedding and clothing of an infected patient. Household disinfectants can be used on surfaces that may have been in contact with an infected person’s sweat, saliva, mucus, vomit, stool or urine. When cleaning, use disposable gloves and throw them away when you are finished.

Document last updated on November 1, 2017

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Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.