Malware vs Viruses: A Comprehensive Comparison 2023

malware vs virus

Malware and viruses – two words often interchanged but encompass different spectrums of digital threats. Let’s start with malware. It’s a catch-all term for any malicious software designed to infect and harm the host system or its user.

On the other hand, a computer virus is just one type of malware. It’s an executable code attached to another executable file, capable of modifying or even deleting data.

Malware vs Virus

Malware is a term derived from the combination of “malicious” and “software.” It refers to any type of software or code that is designed to harm, exploit, or disrupt computer systems, networks, or devices without the consent of the user. Malware can take various forms, including viruses, worms, Trojans, ransomware, spyware, adware, and more.


A computer virus is a type of malicious software (malware) that is designed to replicate and spread itself from one computer to another. It is named “virus” because it behaves like a biological virus, infecting a host and replicating within it.

Significance of Understanding Malware and Viruses in Today’s Digital Age

Understanding the difference between malware and viruses is critical in the digital era. With an increasing number of threats and their ever-evolving nature, being aware of these dangers equips us to navigate the online landscape safely and securely.

Understanding Malware

Now lets discuss what is malware and their types along with how these different types work.

Definition and Purpose of Malware

The term ‘malware’ refers to software designed to gain unauthorized access to a computer system, usually for the benefit of a third party, without the user’s permission. From stealing sensitive information to damaging the system, the objectives can vary.

Different Types of Malware

Malware comes in various forms, including ransomware, spyware, Trojan horses, and worms. Each type operates differently and presents unique challenges. For example, ransomware encrypts data, holding it hostage until a ransom is paid, while spyware covertly collects information without the user’s knowledge.

types of malware


A virus is a computer program that attaches itself to legitimate programs and files without the user’s consent. Viruses can consume computer resources such as memory and CPU time. The attacked programs and files are said to be “infected”. 


A computer worm is a type of malware whose primary function is to self-replicate and infect other computers while remaining active on infected systems. A computer worm duplicates itself to spread to uninfected computers. It often does this by exploiting parts of an operating system that are automatic and invisible to the user. It is common for worms to be noticed only when their uncontrolled replication consumes system resources, slowing or halting other tasks.

How do worms work?

Computer worms often rely on the actions of, and vulnerabilities in, networking protocols to propagate. After a computer worm loads and begins running on a newly infected system, it will typically follow its prime directive: to remain active on an infected system for as long as possible and to spread to as many other vulnerable systems as possible.


Ransomware is a type of malware that prevents or limits users from accessing their system, either by locking the system’s screen or by locking the users’ files until a ransom is paid. More modern ransomware families, collectively categorized as crypto ransomware, encrypt certain file types on infected systems and force users to pay the ransom through certain online payment methods to get a decryption key.

How does it work?

Encryptors, as the name implies, encrypt data on a system, making the content useless without the decryption key. Screen lockers, on the other hand, simply block access to the system with a “lock” screen, asserting that the system is encrypted.

Victims are often notified on a lock screen (common to both encryptors and screen lockers) to purchase a cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, to pay the ransom fee. Once the ransom is paid, customers receive the decryption key and may attempt to decrypt files. Decryption is not guaranteed, as multiple sources report varying degrees of success with decryption after paying ransoms. Sometimes victims never receive the keys. Some attacks install malware on the computer system even after the ransom is paid and the data is released.

Trojan virus

A Trojan horse is a program that allows the attack to control the user’s computer from a remote location. The program is usually disguised as something that is useful to the user. Once the user has installed the program, it has the ability to install malicious payloads, create backdoors, install other unwanted applications that can be used to compromise the user’s computer, etc.

How Do Trojans Work?

Unlike computer viruses, a Trojan horse cannot manifest by itself, so it needs a user to download the server side of the application for it to work. This means the executable (.exe) file should be implemented and the program installed for the Trojan to attack a device’s system. A Trojan virus spreads through legitimate-looking emails and files attached to emails, which are spammed to reach the inboxes of as many people as possible. When the email is opened and the malicious attachment is downloaded, the Trojan server will install and automatically run every time the infected device is turned on. 

Devices can also be infected by a Trojan through social engineering tactics, which cyber criminals use to coerce users into downloading a malicious application. The malicious file could be hidden in banner advertisements, pop-up advertisements, or links on websites. A computer infected by Trojan malware can also spread it to other computers. A cyber criminal turns the device into a zombie computer, which means they have remote control of it without the user knowing. Hackers can then use the zombie computer to continue sharing malware across a network of devices, known as a botnet.


Spyware. Although it sounds like a James Bond gadget, it’s actually a type of malware that infects your PC or mobile device and gathers information about you, including the sites you visit, the things you download, your usernames and passwords, payment information, and the emails you send and receive. The information gathered is then sold to advertisers.

File-less malware

File-less malware is on the rise, and it’s one of the biggest digital infiltration threats to companies. File-less malware is a type of malicious activity that uses native, legitimate tools built into a system to execute a cyber attack. Unlike traditional malware, file-less malware does not require an attacker to install any code on a target’s system, making it hard to detect. This file-less technique of using native tools to conduct a malicious attack is called “living off the land.”

Understanding Viruses

Now lets discuss what is Virus and their types along with how these different types work.

Definition and Purpose of Viruses

A virus is a malicious executable code attached to another executable file. Like biological viruses, computer viruses attach themselves to healthy cells (in this case, files) and replicate, infecting the host system.


Types of Virus

By familiarizing yourself with the types of viruses that exist, you’ll be better able to prevent them.

Program viruses

Attach themselves to executable files such as .exe files. Each time you run the program, the virus duplicates itself and attaches to other programs. Sharing programs with other computers, either by disk or on a network, spreads these types of viruses. You are also at risk for this type of virus when you download applications from the internet.

Macro viruses

Are contained in the macro commands for programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel. Perhaps the most prevalent type of virus, they attach themselves to files (as opposed to programs) and are some of the hardest viruses to detect.

Boot sector viruses

Infect particular files on your hard drive that execute when you boot your computer. When you boot from the infected disk, the boot sector virus attaches itself to the boot files on your hard drive.

How Viruses Spread ?

Computer viruses usually spread in one of three ways: 

  • from removable media
  • from downloads off the internet
  • from email attachments

Although the internet gets a bad rap as a source of viruses, you’re no more likely to contract a virus from the Web than you are from packaged software. Still, scan everything you download, and update your antivirus software regularly.

Most viruses can spread via attachments, either rich-text email or attached applications.

Malware vs Virus: Breaking Down the Differences

Now lets see what makes malware different from virus, and breakdown its characteristics.

Operation and Impact

While viruses require user action to spread, like opening an infected file, certain types of malware can automatically spread through vulnerabilities in a network. In terms of impact malware like spyware focuses on data theft, while a virus may directly damage the system.

Detection and Evading Techniques

Viruses and certain advanced malware types, such as polymorphic viruses, modify their code to evade detection. This ability makes them difficult to identify and remove, often requiring sophisticated anti-malware and anti-virus solutions.

Malware can reveal itself with many different aberrant behaviors. Here are a few telltale signs that you have malware on your system:

Your computer slows down

One of malware’s side effects is to reduce the speed of your operating system (OS), whether you’re navigating the Internet or just using your local applications, usage of your system’s resources appears abnormally high. You might even notice your computer’s fan whirring away at full speed—a good indicator that something is taking up system resources in the background.

Your screen is inundated with annoying ads

Unexpected pop-up ads are a typical sign of a malware infection. They’re especially associated with a form of malware known as adware. What’s more, pop-ups usually come packaged with other hidden malware threats. So if you see something similar to “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’VE WON A FREE PSYCHIC READING!” in a pop-up, don’t click on it. Whatever free prize the ad promises, it will cost you plenty.

Your system crashes

This can come as a freeze or a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death), the latter occurs on Windows systems after encountering a fatal error.

You notice a mysterious loss of disk space

This could be due to a bloated malware squatter, hiding in your hard drive aka bundleware.

Your browser settings change

If you notice your homepage changed or you have new toolbars, extensions, or plugins installed, then you might have some sort of malware infection. Causes vary, but this usually means you clicked on that “congratulations” pop-up, which downloaded some unwanted software.

Your antivirus malfunction

Your antivirus product stops working and you cannot turn it back on, leaving you unprotected against the sneaky malware that disabled it.

You lose access to your files or your entire computer

This is symptomatic of a ransomware infection. The hackers announce themselves by leaving a ransom note on your desktop or changing your desktop wallpaper itself into a ransom note. In the note, the perpetrators typically inform you that your data has been encrypted and demand a ransom payment in exchange for decrypting your files.

The Impact of Malware and Viruses

Malware and Virus have severe impact on individuals as well as organization as it plays major roles in data breach or data loss.

For Individual Users

The impact on individuals can range from annoyance to significant financial loss and privacy invasion. Depending on the type of malware or virus, users may lose valuable data or become victims of identity theft.

For Organizations

For organizations, these threats can disrupt operations and cost considerable amounts to restore systems. Malware attacks like ransomware can lead to direct financial losses if attackers demand a ransom.

Common Misconceptions: Virus vs Malware

Often malware and virus are confused or considered same by vast individual. But malware and virus are two different threats which have their own characteristics.

Clarity on Name Recognition

People often use the terms ‘virus’ and ‘malware’ interchangeably due to entrenched name recognition. However, while all viruses are malware, not all malware are viruses.

Distinguishing Ransomware from Viruses

Another misconception is classifying ransomware as a virus. Although ransomware is a type of malware, it isn’t a virus because it doesn’t self-replicate. Instead, it relies on exploiting vulnerabilities to infect systems.

Dealing with Malware and Viruses

Lets look into how one can recognize the signs of infection of both malware and virus and how to respond to those infections.

Recognizing the Signs of Infection

Detecting malware or a virus can be tricky, especially as many strive to remain inconspicuous. However, certain signs, like system slowdowns, unusual network traffic, or unexpected pop-ups, can indicate an infection.

Responding to Suspected Infections

If you suspect an infection, it’s important to isolate the affected device and run a comprehensive system scan using a reputable anti-malware or anti-virus software.

Prevention is Better than Cure: Proactive Steps Against Malware and Viruses

Install an Antivirus

There are many antivirus programs available, all ranging in price as the level of security increases. Installing the best antivirus is no easy task, and sometimes it may be safer for us to download more than one if they each cover different security aspects.


Keep Your Software up to Date

All computer operating systems receive frequent updates that enhance individual features. These updates also include security measures that keep our computers safe from the latest batch of viruses and malware cooked up by hackers.

Backup Your Computer

Sometimes we’re unable to delete a virus or malware off our computers, and when this happens, we’ll need to remove some of our data. Occasionally, file corruption from harmful code may mean we have to reformat our hard drives.

Use strong passwords

A password is the first line of defense that protects our accounts from anyone trying to gain unauthorized access into them. Once someone’s into an account, they can steal data or place harmful content into cloud storage that may automatically update to the computer.

Be careful with downloads

Websites can be sneaky when they’re loaded with malware and suspicious content. If a download starts that we didn’t authorize, we should immediately cancel it and exit the web page as it’s likely to be filled with more malicious code.

Run virus scans

We must run a virus scan at least on a weekly basis to prevent or minimize the damage done by malicious coding. This can be done moments before we backup to ensure we have no harmful files.

Links can be a dangerous thing, especially when they’re from an unknown source. A common trick that’s still used today is sending phishing emails that link to harmful websites that may install a virus or steal our data. Being careful about what we click on will save us from many potential threats.

The Future of Malware and Viruses

As technology advances, so do malware and viruses. Bad actors are innovating and creating more sophisticated threats, making it imperative for individuals and organizations to stay updated on the latest cybersecurity measures.

Role of AI in Combating Malware and Viruses

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are increasingly being used to detect and respond to threats, adding another layer of defense in the fight against malware and viruses.


In the digital world, understanding the difference between malware and viruses is the first step towards securing your digital space. As threats continue to evolve, remember: knowledge is power, prevention is key, and a robust defense strategy is your best bet in the ongoing battle against malware and viruses.


Is all malware are viruses?

No, not all malware is classified as viruses. While computer viruses are a specific type of malware, there are various other types of malware that exist with distinct characteristics and behaviors.

Will a virus scan detect malware?

Yes, a virus scan performed by antivirus software can detect and remove various types of malware, not just computer viruses. Modern antivirus software is designed to detect and mitigate a wide range of malicious software, including viruses, worms, Trojans, ransomware, spyware, adware, and other forms of malware.

How do I know if I have a virus or malware on my computer?

Signs of a virus or malware on your computer include:

1. Slow performance and delays.
2. Unexpected pop-ups or ads.
3. Unusual system behavior and frequent crashes.
4. Unwanted browser toolbars or homepage changes.
6. Disabled security software.
7. Increased network activity.
8. Missing or modified files.
9. High CPU usage.

Lichumon is an enthusiastic SOC Analyst with a keen interest in exploring the complexities of the dark web and human risk factors in cybersecurity. Despite being early in his career, his eagerness to learn and adapt sets him apart. Balancing vigilance and curiosity, Lichumon navigates the ever-evolving cyber threat landscape with a sense of determination and commitment to continuous learning.