Every phrase you need to know associated with the novel virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes.

Ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the world has been scrambling to adjust to social distancing and a new way of life. On top of those challenges, it can be difficult to keep track of all the jargon and terminology being tossed around. For example, is coronavirus the same thing as COVID-19? When does an epidemic become a pandemic? And what, exactly, does it mean to "flatten the curve?"

Finger pointing to word in dictionary
Credit: Getty / JGI/Jamie Grill

To help you keep things straight, we've broken down all of the words you need to know to stay informed and on top of what's happening regarding the virus.


Many people use coronavirus and COVID-19 interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. In simplest terms, coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The general concept of coronaviruses is not new, but medical experts are referring to this particular coronavirus as the "novel coronavirus," meaning it was not previously known.


COVID-19 is the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. It is an abbreviation of "Coronavirus Disease 2019." To reiterate, the novel coronavirus is a virus and COVID-19 is the disease it causes. According to the CDC, symptoms of COVID-19 include coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. More severe cases can lead to pneumonia, organ failure, and death. People who are at the highest risk are those over 65 or anyone with chronic medical conditions or a compromised immune system.


An "epidemic" is when there is a sharp increase in the number of people who are sick with one particular disease and it spreads out over a wide region. An epidemic becomes a "pandemic" when it spreads even wider globally. The WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.

Social Distancing

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, social distancing is "the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people…during the outbreak of a contagious disease." But how far apart is "greater than usual?" The CDC recommends standing at least six feet apart to reduce the risk of infection.

Flattening the Curve

This phrase refers to the concept of "flattening the curve" on a chart that shows when new coronavirus cases will spike. The idea is that you do not want to see a peak on this chart, which risks overwhelming hospitals. Instead, the goal is to flatten the curve, slowing the spread over time. It's our social responsibility to stay at home as much as possible to help make this happen.

Shelter in Place

The phrases "shelter in place," "stay at home," and "safer at home" all essentially refer to the same practice and are being used interchangeably by officials. The idea is to stay at home unless you are going to the grocery store or pharmacy, going to the doctor or walking outside to get fresh air. States in the U.S. are continuing to update their orders and policies as the virus spreads.


A lockdown is a stricter term, and it can have different meanings. Often it refers to being restricted to a certain area or having a curfew. Spain, for example, declared a lockdown and people caught leaving their home could be subject to being fined or arrested.


Many people use "isolation" and "quarantine" interchangeably, but according to the Department of Health and Human Services, isolation refers to separating ill patients from those who are healthy to help stop the spread of disease.


Quarantine, on the other hand, refers to separating and restricting the movement of well people not showing symptoms to see if they become ill and to prevent them from contracting the disease.


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