Malware vs. Viruses: What’s the Difference?

virus alert

Malware vs. Viruses: What’s the Difference?

Key Points

  • A computer virus is a type of malware that has an ability to self-replicate, and is primarily transferred through infected electronic files.
  • Malware attacks can come from corrupt files, apps, and websites, and can affect devices, phones, and computers. Viruses generally attack computers.
  • Ransomware attacks have grown significantly in recent years with the growing accessibility of cryptocurrencies.

As computers became fixtures in homes and businesses in the 1970s and 80s, malware also developed as an issue. The first types of malware were more about causing a nuisance than the criminal enterprise it has become today. Because computers were not connected to networks, early malicious software could only affect one unit at a time.

In this early era, people used the terms “malware” and “virus” interchangeably. It was easy for consumers to understand the concept of a program that traveled from computer to computer like a common cold. Technically, a computer virus is a type of malware named for its ability to self-replicate. Understanding the differences between malware in general and viruses will help users mount the best defense against these dangerous programs.

Malware vs. Viruses: Side-by-Side Comparison

First developed:The 1970sThe 1970s
Devices affected:Computers, tablets, and phonesPrimarily computers
Delivery system:Corrupt files, apps, and websitesPrimarily infected files
Delivery strategies:Phishing, scarewareLegitimate files
Defense strategy:Antimalware softwareAnitmalware software

Malware vs. Viruses: Must-Know Facts

  • Malware is any type of malicious software including ransomware and spyware.
  • Viruses are a type of malware defined by their ability to self-replicate and spread.
  • Early viruses passed from computer to computer in infected code on floppy disks.
  • Antimalware programs recognize the code signature of viruses and quarantine infected files.

Malware: From Nuisance to Destructive

system hacked malware cybersecurity data security ransomware
A programme which is designed to damage a computer system or network is classed as malware


Malware is the general term for any program designed to damage a computer system or network. The active types of malware in the world often develop in response to consumer choices. For many years, Apple products were not the target of malware developers. Cybercriminals preferred to attack Windows systems that had a larger piece of the market. However, as Apple computers have grown more popular, developers have written code to infiltrate them.

Cybersecurity professionals saw a similar trend with the growth of smaller devices like smartphones and tablets. Disabling security precautions on these devices can lead to infection with malicious software.

Malware affects computers in several ways depending on the intent of the designer. Ransomware attacks have grown significantly in the past few years with the growing accessibility of cryptocurrencies. In a ransomware attack, the downloaded program encrypts data files on the infected system. The organization behind the attack does not hide it. Instead, once they know their attack has been successful, they openly contact the organization to demand payment.

Adware and Scareware are disruptive programs that try to get users to pay for security programs they do not need. An unexpected pop-up window tells the user about an infection. Often, the advertised service claims to be able to fix the problem for a fee.

Other malware strategies are more secretive. Spyware seeks to steal sensitive information like credit card numbers and social security numbers. If successful, the user has no idea that the program is operating in the background. Other trojan programs might hijack some of the processing power of a computer for cryptocurrency mining operations.

Computer Virus: Infecting and Self-Replicating

computer virus
The ability of viruses to self-replicate distinguish them from other malware


Early versions of computer viruses passed from system to system on floppy disks. Users loaded a new program on their hard drive only to discover that malicious code was affecting performance or shutting down the unit. In this type of viral attack, the first instance of the virus would replicate and infect many other files. Transferring a legitimate file with a floppy disk ran the risk of infection.

The ability of viruses to self-replicate is one of the main differences between these programs and other malware. Delivering other malicious software programs like ransomware involves mass mailings of the program to potential targets. When a single instance of a virus gets into a network, it will spread on its own if not caught.

There are many types of viruses floating around networks. Some malicious software works in the background modifying essential files or settings. Other viruses might delete or encrypt files on the system. A more modern strategy for spreading involves infecting the email platform on a system to make it send infected messages to a user’s contacts.

Once cybersecurity professionals become aware of a virus, they update antimalware programs to recognize its code. This procedure prevents infections before they can affect the system. However, new polymorphic viruses are challenging security software. These programs automatically change their code when they enter a new system so that they are much more difficult to identify and track.

The Difference Between Malware and Viruses

The terms malware and virus are often used interchangeably, which poses the question of just what are the differences between the two.  However, the two are not completely indistinct.  This is because malware is simply a general term which is used to describe any type of programme which is designed to damage a computer system or network, whereas a virus is a type of malware.  This means that malware could be used to describe any computer virus.  But, just to make things a little confusing — virus cannot be used to describe every type of virus.

When it comes to identifying the differences between the two, the things to look at are the type of attack, how it operates, and the method of infection.  In fact, the most important thing to understand is that viruses all spread through self-replication.  However, malware can be things such as ransomware, trojans, keyloggers (and viruses).

Furthermore, most viruses are spread though things such as infected websites, emails, or software. On the other hand, malware attacks typically occur through phishing or corrupt downloads.

Finally, viruses tend to only attack when the unsuspecting user opens the infected download or programme, thereby activating it.  Malware attacks by creating the opportunity for the original creator or sender to access the computer system or by actively sending sensitive information back to the instigator.

Malware vs. Virus: Understanding the Danger

While there are differences that set viruses apart from other malware, the strategies for preventing infections are much the same. Organizations should train their employees to look for signs of suspicious programs, and users should never click on unsolicited emails or attachments.

Regular scanning with an antimalware program is another protective step. Although these platforms cannot prevent every emerging threat, they can still eliminate the most common dangers. IT employees should regularly update their antimalware software for the best protection.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between malware and viruses?

A computer virus is a type of malware that can self-replicate. Once introduced into a system, it copies itself into files without an active connection to its original developer.

What is malware?

Malware is any malicious software designed to infect, damage, or exploit computer systems. These programs include self-replicating viruses, ransomware, and spyware.

What are some of the other types of malware?

The common types of malware vary by how they infect the system and what they intend to do.

  • Trojans hide malicious code in legitimate-looking applications. These programs typically have a single function and do not replicate.
  • Adware and Scareware deliver unsolicited ads and pop-ups that try to persuade users to make unnecessary purchases.
  • Spyware operates in the background of a system to gather sensitive data.
  • Ransomware encrypts files when it executes. The sponsoring organization demands a payment to decrypt the files.

How do I know if my computer is infected with a virus?

The presence of a well-designed virus may not be obvious to the user. However, there are some frequent signs of infection. A computer system with a viral program running in the background may be slower than usual. A user might see unknown processes when running the Task Manager. Contacts might complain about unsolicited or suspicious emails coming from the system if the virus affects the email platform.

To top