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Malware vs. Viruses

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Malware, viruses, and worms are all cyber security threats. While they are each different things, the threats they pose intersect in important ways.


Malware is a general term that encompasses all software designed to do harm. You can compare the term “malware” to the term “vehicle.” All software-based threats are malware, just like all cars and trucks are vehicles. 

However, similar to vehicles, there are many different kinds of malware. In other words, you can have a car, an SUV, and a truck, and you would have three vehicles. But not every vehicle is a car, a truck, or an SUV. Similarly, viruses and worms are both malware, but not all malware is a virus or a worm.


Viruses can be spread from one computer to another inside files. For the virus to be activated, someone has to trigger it with an external action. For example, a virus can be embedded inside a spreadsheet. If you download the spreadsheet, your computer will not necessarily be infected. The virus gets activated once you open the spreadsheet.


With a worm, there is no need for the victim to open up any files or even click on anything. The worm can both run and spread itself to other computers. Because a worm has the ability to automatically propagate itself, you can get a worm in your computer just because it is on the same network as another infected device.

Comparative Analysis of Malware, Virus, and Worm

All worms and viruses or malware, but there are significant differences between worms and viruses. Malware, being a general term, can also include many other threats. However, a worm behaves in a very specific way, making it significantly different than a virus.

 A worm can replicate and spread itself from one computer to another. On the other hand, a virus cannot self-replicate, and it needs to be sent by a user or software to travel between two different computers.

Malware, Virus or Worm: What Is More Dangerous?

While it is difficult to say which is the most dangerous, the following is generally true.

Malware vs. Worm vs. Virus

Malware refers to any kind of software that is regarded as malignant or malicious, no matter how it works, what it intends to do, or how it is issued. A virus is very specific in the sense that it self-replicates by adding its code to other applications.

In a comparison of malware vs. worm, malware is more dangerous because it encompasses both worms and all other software-based threats, such as spyware, ransomware, and Trojans. The same can be said of the malware vs. virus conversation. Trying to ascertain which is more dangerous—malware, viruses, or worms—is like trying to figure out which is better at transporting people: vehicles, cars, or trucks.

Virus vs. Worm

On the other hand, the "virus vs. worm" discussion is a little more nuanced. Both viruses and worms can do significant damage to your computer, but the ways in which they spread and are activated can make one a more significant danger than the other. In many cases, it depends on how your network is structured.

Why a Worm is Dangerous

If your network consists of many computers connected to each other in a ring formation, then a worm may be a bigger threat than a virus. The same could be said of a network set up in a hub formation with a server in the middle that serves all the computers in the network, particularly if the server does not have adequate antimalware defenses.

In these kinds of architectures, a worm, once introduced to one computer, can replicate itself and spread to the other computers in the network. This can give one worm the power to infect the entire network. If a virus is introduced to an unprotected hub-and-spoke network or a ring network, users will still have to send the virus to each other and then open the file for each computer in the network to get infected.

Why a Virus is Just as Dangerous

On the surface, a worm, which is also referred to as a worm virus, will appear more dangerous than a virus, but because computers within an organization's network interact with the internet often more than they do with each other, viruses can be just as dangerous. For example, a single website that several users visit can download a virus to their computers, and when they open the file containing the virus, all of them can get infected.  

In many situations, a worm's functionality can also work against itself. Because the worm is designed to spread from one computer to another, it risks the chance of exposing itself with each lateral move. If, for example, a worm has to go through a firewall as it tries to go from one computer to the next, the firewall may detect it. At that point, system administrators can use relatively basic forensic analysis to figure out where the worm came from.

This is not the case with viruses. Several users can download the same or different viruses, and figuring out where they came from, especially if they did not come from the same emails or websites, can present a significant challenge.

Therefore, the difference between malware and a virus is not as much of a factor as is the difference between a virus and a worm. The same can be said of the difference between malware and worm because malware encompasses worms.  

How To Protect Devices from Malware, Viruses, and Worms

There are several ways to protect your computer from threats like viruses, worms, and other malware:

  1. Use an effective antimalware program.
  2. Learn how to recognize malicious programs. Keep an eye out for applications that look or behave suspiciously, as well as your computer running slowly or overheating.
  3. Avoid downloads from suspicious websites.
  4. Use a firewall.

How Fortinet Can Help?

With the FortiGate next-generation firewall (NGFW), your organization is protected from worms, viruses, and other kinds of malware. The FortiGate NGFW uses deep packet inspection (DPI) to detect and mitigate data packets that contain threats, as well as machine learning algorithms that can detect zero-day attacks based on their behavior. 

The FortiGate NGFW integrates with the Fortinet Security Fabric and can process all incoming and outgoing data, ensuring all devices on your network are thoroughly protected.


What is the difference between malware and a virus?

All viruses are malware, but malware can also include threats like spyware, ransomware, and worms.

What is the difference between malware and a worm?

All worms are malware, but malware can also encompass threats like Trojans, spyware, ransomware, and viruses.

What is the difference between a virus and a worm?

A worm can self-replicate and spread to other computers, while a virus cannot. A virus needs to be sent from one computer to another by a user or via software.