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Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors

The MERS virus causes a flu-like disease with pneumonia in most cases. However, it is important to distinguish it from other diseases with similar symptoms. A history of travel to affected areas, particularly the Middle East, and contact with patients known to be infected with the MERS virus are helpful for early detection.

What Are the Symptoms of MERS?

The more common symptoms reported with MERS include:

  • Fever with or without chills and stiffness
  • Cough, shortness of breath, coughing up blood
  • Sore throat, muscle pain, muscle soreness
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, stomach or belly pain

People with MERS can have signs of severe disease - acute breathing failure, kidney damage and high fevers. These people are admitted to the intensive care unit of a hospital. Some people may have milder symptoms or no symptoms and are followed closely at home. It is important for any patient with the these symptoms and a history of travel to the Arabian Peninsula, or any other affected region or contact with an infected person, to report to the nearest healthcare provider and be tested for possible MERS infection.

What Causes MERS?

MERS is caused by a coronavirus, which is primarily spread by respiratory secretions, though the exact manner in which the virus spreads is currently unknown. MERS can be caused by close contact with persons infected with the MERS virus. It can also be caused by close contact with camels. The World Health Organization recommends that in regions with a high risk of MERS, people avoid having close contact with camels, avoid drinking raw camel milk/urine, and eating undercooked camel meat. The incubation period – the time from virus exposure to start of symptoms - for the MERS virus is usually about 5 or 6 days, but it can range from 2 to 14 days.

What Are Risk Factors?

  • Recent travelers to the Arabian Peninsula who develop symptoms of respiratory (lung) illness within 14 days of their return.
  • Patients with underlying medical problems and reduced immunity are at increased risk for severe disease.
  • Close contact with a traveler with respiratory illness within 14 days of travel to the Arabian Peninsula (Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Yemen), South Korea, or other countries affected with MERS
  • Close contact with camels in those affected areas
  • Healthcare professionals treating patients with MERS and not using the recommended infection prevention precautions
  • Close contact with patients diagnosed with MERS

When to See Your Doctor

If you develop new respiratory symptoms or fever and:

  • Recently lived or traveled within 14 days in the Arabian Peninsula or any of the other countries with reported patients; OR
  • Have been in contact with any person with a respiratory illness who had recently traveled (within 14 days of his/her illness) to the Arabian Peninsula.

Please see your doctor or healthcare provider for an evaluation. If you are feeling sick and have severe breathing difficulty, then you should go directly to the nearest hospital or emergency department. If you have access to a facemask, you should wear it to avoid spreading the virus to other people.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

    Page Last Updated: March 13, 2018

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