Virus vs. Malware: What's the Difference?

Malware includes all forms of threat to your system, including viruses

Image of a malware alert on a computer screen

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Sometimes the terms malware and virus are used interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences you should be aware of in order to better protect yourself from both.

Virus vs. Malware: What's the Difference?

With applications available that scan and monitor your computer for viruses or malware, it's difficult to know whether or not you're fully protected.

What is malware? The term malware is an umbrella term that covers nearly every online threat your computer or smartphone faces. These include:

  • Viruses: What is a virus? A virus is a program that, once downloaded, executes itself and attempts to spread throughout the system by replacing or modifying other software on the computer, like critical system files.
  • Trojans: A Trojan is a program that is concealed as a useful application. However, embedded in the code of that program that attempts to steal files or data from your system.
  • Worms: A worm is a program that is embedded inside another infected host file, like a Word or Excel document. This program spreads from computer to computer, wherever the host file is downloaded. It's actions, like stealing data or files, are similar to Trojans.
  • Backdoors: Backdoor malware is usually used against web servers running components with existing security vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities allow for remote "injection" of the malware script, which then stays on the server and allows hackers to remote access the system and its folders and files.
  • Exploits: Exploit malware is an application written specifically to exploit a known vulnerability in software that's running on your system. These are often known as zero-day exploits because they attack software vulnerabilities that are identified but not patched yet.
  • Adware: Adware is an application that is only designed to show you advertisements while you're using your computer, usually when you're using your web browser. They're most commonly included with browser add-ons.
  • Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUP): A PUP is an application that usually comes as an add-on program when you install software you actually want. This may include a browser toolbar, adware, or even a bitcoin-mining app. The effect of a PUP is usually using up your CPU usage without your knowledge.

Malware encompasses the entire family of threats that your computer faces, while viruses are just one family of that threat.

Do Antivirus Apps Protect You From All Malware?

Do all antivirus applications protect you from all forms of malware? The answer is yes and no.

Antivirus applications are also known as an "on-access" tool that scans files you download or websites you visit to detect threats whenever you access them.

All of the major antivirus software providers make it very clear that their software protect you from all forms of malware.

Screenshot of AVG Antivirus software

While it's true that your antivirus software will protect you from malware it discovers on your PC (or when you attempt to download a file), it will not always protect you from newly emerging threats, like zero-day exploits.

For this level of protection, you need additional "on-demand" software that you can run frequently and which updates immediately any time such threats are discovered.

One example of such software is Malwarebytes.

Screenshot of a Malwarebytes scan

Malwarebytes is an on-demand malware scanning tool. It isn't focused on actively preventing viruses from installing on your PC. Instead it will scan your system for the latest zero-day exploits, adware, and even PUPs that may cause performance related issues on your system.

Screenshot of Malwarebytes scan results

Malwarebytes helps to ensure that even unwanted software that may not be actively trying to disrupt your system is cleaned up and removed. This can free up memory and CPU and improve overall performance.

How to Protect Your Computer From All Malware

The best approach to ensure that your computer isn't infected with any form of malware is to use a three-layer system.

  1. Enable Windows Defender: Select the Windows start menu and type Windows Defender. Select Windows Defender settings and then select Open Windows Security. Make sure all checkmarks are green. Take any suggested actions to make sure every item has a green checkmark.

    A Screenshot of Windows Defender showing all options protected.
  2. Enable Windows Firewall: In the left navigation pane, select Firewall & network protection. Make sure the Firewall is on status is displayed under all three network types. If it isn't on, then turn on that firewall.

    Screenshot of enabled Windows Defender Firewall.
  3. Install Antivirus Software: For the second level of protection, choose and install one of the many free antivirus applications that are available. You should also install antivirus apps for your Android, as well as antivirus apps for your Mac. You may need to restart your computer to complete installation.

    Screenshot of AVG Antivirus main screen
  4. Enable Antivirus Self-Defense: In your antivirus Settings menu, you'll usually find a Self-Defense or Self-Protect feature. This ensures that virus software can't disable your antivirus app and remove its protection. Make sure this feature is enabled.

    Screenshot of AVG Antivirus Enable Self-Defense feature.
  5. Install Malware Scanning Software: These applications are also known as on-demand virus scanners. They are typically updated immediately with zero-day exploits and will ensure your computer is free of the latest threats. Install one of these apps and perform a full system scan.

    The initial full scan can take several hours to complete. Many antivirus applications are light, which means they won't drag your system down, but some may, so if you experience lag time when loading applications during a full virus scan, that may not be an unusual occurrence.

    Screenshot of Malwarebytes following a system scan
  6. Set On-Demand Scan Schedule: To ensure you're always protected from all forms of malware, set the on-demand scanner on a regular scan schedule. You can usually find this under Scan or Settings. A once-a-day scan is usually enough, but if you want, you can set the software to scan several times a day.

    Screenshot of the Malwarebytes scan schedule.

    Many people set their daily scans to run at night or very early in the morning, when the computer will not be in use. This is a throw-back to when antivirus programs were resource intense and would cause a system to slow down dramatically during a scan. It's still not a bad practice to run your scans at night, but if you turn your system off at night, you can usually schedule them for light-use daytime hours without noticing too much difference in reaction times.

  7. Enable Automatic Updates. In both your antivirus and malware-scanner applications, check the setting section and ensure that Application Updates are set to Automatic. This ensures that the moment zero-day exploits are identified, you'll receive the update that will protect your system from those.

    Screenshot of Malwarebytes application updates settings.

Once you've completed all of these steps, you'll have three solid layers of security protection on your system. This will greatly reduce the chances that any form of malware, whether it's a worm, a virus, or adware, will ever infect your computer.