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‘Pandemic’ vs. ‘Epidemic’—What's the Difference?

COVID-19 is now officially a pandemic. The call is somewhat subjective, but there are some guidelines. 

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
a doctor holding a piece of paper that says coronavirus
The Quick And Dirty
  • Generally speaking, a pandemic is more serious than an epidemic. A pandemic spreads wider and affects more people.
  • “-demic” comes from the Greek word “dēmos,” which means “people.”
  • “Epi” in “epidemic” means “among” or “upon,” so "epidemic" means "among the people."
  • “Pan” means “all,” so a pandemic is affecting all the people.

The coronavirus disease has officially moved from being an epidemic to a pandemic. So what’s the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic?

‘Pandemic’ Versus ‘Epidemic’

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Generally speaking, a pandemic is more serious than an epidemic. A pandemic spreads wider and affects more people. 

A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.

According to the CDC, an epidemic is "an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area,” and a pandemic is “an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”

‘Coronavirus disease’ and ‘COVID-19’ are the same thing

Also, here’s a bit of help with the terminology because it can be confusing. The disease was originally called the “2019 novel coronavirus." According to the WHO, the official name of the virus is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” “SARS-CoV-2” for short, and the name of the disease is “coronavirus disease” or “COVID-19.” [UPDATE: Although the WHO refers to the disease as "coronavirus disease," the CDC appears to be calling it "coronavirus disease 2019."]

An image of the official names of the virus and disease

Much like HIV is the name of the virus that causes AIDS, SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.

Origin of ‘pandemic’ and ‘epidemic’

If you’re wondering about the origins of the words, the “-demic” part comes from the Greek word “dēmos,” which means “people.” It’s the same root that gives us the word “democratic,” which means “government by the people.”

“Epi” in “epidemic” means “among” or “upon,” so an epidemic is among the people or upon the people; and “pan” means “all,” so a pandemic is affecting all the people.

Is COVID-19 an epidemic or a pandemic?

Those definitions are subjective, and it’s not as if there’s a scientific test that reveals that, yes, suddenly at this one specific moment, we meet the criteria for a pandemic. But since the virus has now affected more than 125,000 people worldwide, is in more than 100 countries, and is on every continent except Antarctica, COVID-19 meets the general criteria for a pandemic.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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