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What Is SARS?

The year 2013 began with health officials talking about a "SARS-like virus" and worrying that we might see a repeat of the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003. But what is SARS, how is it transmitted, and how do you avoid catching it?

SARS defined

SARS (the acronym stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a disease caused by a coronavirus, a type of virus that is also responsible for influenza, bronchitis, and some strains of the common cold.

The first cases of SARS appeared in late 2002, with confirmation in early 2003. Over the course of the outbreak, 8,096 people were diagnosed with SARS; 774 (9.5%) of those people died from it. No new cases of SARS have been reported since 2004.

How is SARS transmitted?

Like most viruses of this type, SARS is passed from person to person through infected saliva — from sneezing, coughing, kissing, and sharing food or drink — or otherwise through close contact with an infected person. If someone with SARS coughs into his fist and then you shake his hand, you put yourself at risk.

Once a person is infected, the virus may incubate for three to ten days before symptoms show. Doctors believe that the virus could be transmitted during this incubation time. The symptoms of SARS are similar to those of the flu: fever, dry cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, and possibly headaches, muscle aches, sore throat, diarrhea, and general fatigue.

Severe cases may require hospitalization, especially if the sufferer is having trouble breathing. Authorities at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people who have SARS stay home (except for doctors' visits) for 10 days after symptoms have ceased.

How do I avoid SARS?

You can protect yourself from SARS in the same way you protect yourself from other common illnesses: Avoid areas where there are known outbreaks, and wash your hands regularly. Getting a flu shot may also help protect you.

SARS resources

A number of organizations track SARS and SARS-like cases and offer a wealth of information about the disease. To learn more about SARS, check out these websites:

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