Pandemics and Epidemics: What’s the Difference?

Pandemic is a disease outbreak that is transmitted from person-to-person and is therefore considered a public health emergency. An epidemic, on the other hand, is a pandemic that affects an entire population or a region. Both pandemic and epidemic have the same root word, pandemic, which means “wondrous” in Latin. Both pandemics and epidemics are therefore very dangerous and can spread rapidly amongst people.   But, what are the differences between a pandemic and an epidemic? They are entirely different beasts.

What Is a Pandemic?

The term pandemic was first used in the 13th century to describe a number of international Epidemics that struck major European countries at roughly the same time. A pandemic is an epidemic that affects a large portion of the world’s population. A pandemic can also refer to a sudden outbreak of several diseases that are quickly transmitted among people. A pandemic usually refers to a condition that affects many people worldwide. For example, the 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 20-40 million people worldwide, making it the largest single-virus human catastrophe known before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, other types of pandemics exist, each with their own terminology. In other words, a pandemic is when multiple viruses strike at the same time.


What Is an Epidemic?

An epidemiologist is a healthcare professional who studies how people acquire and spread infectious diseases. Epidemic is a very general term that refers to any sudden outbreak of new infectious diseases that is spread through contact or consumption of certain foods or fluids.  Epidemiologists study infectious disease outbreaks and then try to understand how they happen and what can be done to prevent them. They study “epidemics” and “pandemics” as a way to learn more about how certain diseases spread. 

Epidemiologists use a variety of tools to study epidemics, including computer models, statistics, and sometimes, human observation. When an epidemic occurs in a certain area, the proportion of people who are infected increases during certain times of the year. Epidemiologists study these intervals to learn how epidemics spread and, in some cases, develop “epidemic spike” models to explain how a particular infectious agent moves between people and stays in their bodies.

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How Does a Pandemic Spread?

People can trade information and tips about how to avoid getting involved in a pandemic. This is called “distributed prevention” and can help limit the spread of a pandemic. Preventing infection is much easier said than done, however. The best way to prevent a pandemic is to be careful and avoid getting infected in the first place. Unlike a pandemic, an epidemic is a disease that affects many people. A pandemic, however, is a large-scale spread of an epidemic around the world.

How to Distinguish Between a Pandemic and an Epidemic?

There are a few key factors to distinguish between a pandemic and an epidemic

  • The length 
  • The distribution  
  • The impact on society 
  • The number of potential hosts 
  • The amount of time a microorganism spends in a host
  • How a microorganism unfolds in a host 
  • How a host reacts to disease
  • How a host determines the fate of a genome

In a pandemic, all of these factors are more severe and widespread than in an epidemic.

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Bottom Line

An epidemic is a sudden outbreak of an infectious disease that is quickly transmitted between people. A pandemic usually affects a large portion of the world’s population and lasts a long time.  An epidemic is a specific type of pandemic that affects a small portion of the world’s population, and lasts only a short time.  Both can be very dangerous, but, while an epidemic is a short-term event, a pandemic is a long-term condition.

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