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What is the Difference Between an Epidemic and a Pandemic?

By R. Kayne
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Epidemic and pandemic are similar terms that refer to the spread of infectious diseases among a population. There are two main differences between epidemic and pandemic. The term "pandemic" normally is used to indicate a far higher number of people affected than an epidemic. "Pandemic" also refers to a much larger region being affected. In the most extreme case, the entire global population would be affected by a pandemic.

The terms epidemic and pandemic usually refer to the rate of infection, the area that is affected or both. An epidemic is defined as an illness or health-related issue that is showing up in more cases than would normally be expected. In the case of a pandemic, even more of the population is affected than in an epidemic. A pandemic typically is in a widespread area rather than being confined to a particular location or region.

Epidemics

To envision an epidemic, one could take a hypothetical example of numerous people contracting the same flu-like symptoms in a particular area. More cases then show up throughout the region, but the concentration remains localized in a few cities. Some cases then turn in other regions, but the illness never spreads elsewhere. In the hubs where the illness is seen, the infection rate remains higher than would normally be expected. This is a classic example of an epidemic.

Pandemics

A more widespread example would be if the rate of infection started growing exponentially so that more and more cases cropped up locally. Under favorable circumstances, the rate of infection can grow very fast. Cases might then be found in many other regions, and the rate of infection would exceed even that of an epidemic. In some scenarios, most of a country's population — or even people in other countries — can become affected by this disease. This is a pandemic.

Subtle Differences

If people throughout a country are affected but the rate of incidence is not high enough, it still would be considered an epidemic. Conversely, a disease that affects a very high percentage of a small population in a large area — such as a remote area Africa — might be called a pandemic. A pandemic might be regionally localized if it involves more cases than a simple epidemic, and an epidemic might be widespread if not enough of the population is affected to term it a pandemic. In the latter case, however, it still might be called a pandemic by some people, just because the geographical area is so widespread.

These subtle but significant differences in how the terms epidemic and pandemic are used might be confusing, but in most cases, epidemics turn into pandemics by growing exponentially because of the nature of the disease. Pandemics typically are seen as more serious situations. The term "epidemic" might also be used to refer to the spread of things other than diseases, such as problems like drug use or even metaphorically to refer to innocuous happenings. It is unlikely for "pandemic" to be used in this sense, however.

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Discussion Comments
By anon298157 — On Oct 18, 2012

For heaven's sake, it's an epidemic! Whatever is going wrong with the vocabulary in the world today? Pandemic? Give me a break. It's epidemic.

By anon127838 — On Nov 17, 2010

The media is usually exaggerating, but occasionally with good reason back when aids first came up every one dismissed its need for control or referred to it as the gaylord disease. now see what happened. Pandemics usually also have a higher rate of mortality.

By anon103194 — On Aug 11, 2010

Words for the media to use after pandemic loses its shock value: Uberdemic, Gigademic, Megademic.

By anon88165 — On Jun 03, 2010

Epidemic became pandemic because the media found it more dramatic. 'Epidemic' has virtually disappeared. Nothing to do with the original meanings. Patrick W., Toronto

By Tomsta82 — On Oct 12, 2009

Reply to anon31140 (comment no.10): Back in the 1889 Russian Flu Pandemic and 1918 there was a similar outbreak to the one today but the 1918 outbreak killed heaps more people.

By anon47525 — On Oct 05, 2009

RE: anon30998 Economic repercussions of H1N1 compared to past influenza strains. The virus hasn't mutated, the rate of contamination is less. The most curious statistic about this whole thing is the threat levels from the CDC and WHO.

By anon42965 — On Aug 24, 2009

Nice simple and plain explanation of pandemic. Strange though how WHO seems to be 'planning' ahead for a big outbreak of swine flu when all the evidence is that it is just another flu and no more serious than others. Perhaps they can't wait to see us all infected or believing we are and therefore desperately in need of their vaccinations which of course will be mandatory in most countries. How many will die after these vaccinations is something only they can guess at. the 1976 swine flu vaccinations did so much harm except to the vaccination companies. Wake up people.

By anon41813 — On Aug 17, 2009

Is there any good reason why this N1H1 is considered a pandemic? It may cross the globe, but the common influenza virus kills more people annually than this one "pandemic swine flu" has total. Furthermore, most of the people who have died have been elderly, sick or children. I would be much more interested to hear about if there was a disease floating about that can be caught by your average healthy adult.

Talk about propaganda and media hype. Don't we have anything better to report about?

By anon36119 — On Jul 10, 2009

Thanks for that. I didn't understand all this gibberish about the swine flu! I always thought that a pandemic meant that of an epidemic and vice versa. These terms do seem a little technical, though. The difference is minuscule it seems. But that is just my uneducated viewpoint! :)

By anon31898 — On May 13, 2009

I have noticed that the term epidemic is used less and less and that the Media likes using the term "pandemic" because I guess it is a scary term that draws attention to your news articles. Anything to sell papers.

By anon31371 — On May 04, 2009

Thanks for clearing this up. From the first reports on the swine flu, I wondered what is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. I initially thought that an epidemic is much worse than a pandemic. From your explanation, the difference seems to be too technical. It also seems that it has nothing to do with the type or severity of the disease.

What about AIDS, Cancer, Malaria, Typhoid, Hepatitis B and C? Do we have an epidemic with these or pandemic or none?

By StaggerLee — On May 04, 2009

It appears that it could be an epidemic in The Times, but would certainly be a Pandemic in the Daily Star!

It’s a bit like when people constantly use disinterested when they mean uninterested!

By apaul49 — On May 02, 2009

pandemic schammdemic there are more people sick with regular common old garden variety flu right now than have swine flu world wide. all we hear is swine flu on the news. makes me wonder what the smoke screen is covering. what are they up to? watch your back and your wallet.

By anon31154 — On Apr 30, 2009

there are people saying to be prepared for a pandemic. is it worse than an epidemic? all i know for sure is that i will be taking extreme precautions as it has shown up in north east England. i live in the north and the north east is about an hours drive away. i am an hour away from swine flu and potential death!

By anon31140 — On Apr 30, 2009

Years ago the flu was called an epidemic like in the early 1900's but now that same flu is referred to as a pandemic. Was the term pandemic used back then, and if not, why change it now if it was considered an epidemic can we look back and change it because now we have a new word?

By limo007 — On Apr 28, 2009

When a vaccine is produced for this swine flu that is going around, if it mutates the disease, what's the worst that could happen?

By anon30998 — On Apr 28, 2009

How does a pandemic affect the U.S. economy? Because it affects the workers. If the output of goods and services is affected, it has a negative affect on the economy. The exact effect depends on the extent of the pandemic and the affected "community". Imagine if a big telecomm company or utility company was exposed to a pandemic that made 85% of their employees have an extended illness. Imagine the affect that would have on the ability of the utility company to serve the public. Imagine a pandemic that exposed all Dulles airport workers to a highly contagious disease. It could potentially spread to other major airports - what happens if 85% of major carrier's staff is ill, and that same illness is extended to 85% of the employees of the 7 or 8 largest airports in the US? Or, a very practical problem - a highly infectious disease gets into the New York City school system (or LA, or Chicago, or ...). No one has to die, obviously, but what happens to workplace productivity if 100% of the children from one of those cities stay home from school for two weeks - and at least one parent from each family stays home as well - you are losing a ton of productivity from the workplace. This would have a devastating impact on our ability to produce.

By anon30992 — On Apr 28, 2009

Sounds to me like there is really no difference. Depends on which arm of the government wants to scare who. Or which arm of the press wants more coverage!

By anon30983 — On Apr 28, 2009

And once megademic becomes redundant we will move on to apocademic.

By dbg123 — On Apr 27, 2009

I noticed a significant change in the news media when this word became apparent. They now have no use for the word 'epidemic'. I suggest a word for the next phase to keep us all cowardly... how about *megademic*?!

Comments, please.

By josephkoenig — On Apr 24, 2009

How does a pandemic and epidemic affect the u.s. economy?

By anon4095 — On Oct 02, 2007

When you say "most of the population" does that mean 51 percent, or is there a more more exact percentage?

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