Top 10 Worst Pandemics in History

According to WHO, a pandemic is the spreading of a new virus across the world, at the same time, affecting several people. Humans are sometimes dealing with the worst and scary pandemic that warns the health of the public. But without a doubt, we can say it was not the first time. The various deadliest pandemics mainly spread from the animals and contaminate them with the people leading to massive death. In this list, we will examine the top ten worst pandemics in history. 

10 COVID-19

Caucasian senior infected patient of coronavirus covid-19 lying on the bed in quarantine room of the hospital with the doctor and medical staff posting thumps up to cheer up a patient for good health.

The World Health Organization announced the crisis of coronavirus as a pandemic on March 11. The most recently discovered coronavirus caused this ongoing infectious global pandemic, COVID-19. So far, around 3,194,601 people have died from this outbreak as of May 1, 2021. WHO reported 152,045,622 cases in more than 188 countries and territories. The researchers unknown about the virus until it started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. 

The common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, dry cough, tiredness. It also contains less common symptoms such as aches and pains, conjunctivitis, headache, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, diarrhea, a rash on the skin, or discoloration of fingers or toes. Moreover, asymptomatic people are still active infection carriers and can infect other persons also.

This virus remains active in the air for three hours. Most people recover without requiring special treatment. People like older and those with medical problems such as cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, and cancer can lead to serious illness. Washing our hands or frequently using an alcohol-based rub, wearing masks, and not touching our faces almost protected us and others from infection.

When coughing, sneezing, or speaking from an infected patient, the smallest saliva drops fly off. So, these droplets spread via person-to-person contact. Each of the droplets may contain billions of particles of virus. The usual incubation period of this disease is from one to 14 days, but most commonly, it takes five days. Additionally, it has no specific vaccines or treatments for COVID-19 currently. Physical distancing measures are the best method to prevent transmission. Thus, it is also one of the worst pandemics.

  • Symptoms: fever, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, loss of taste, or smell.
  • Countries affected: Worldwide.
  • Duration: 2019- Present
  • Causes: Novel coronavirus

Afternote: Last updated on May 1, 2021. We updated this page content weekly.


russian flu
Dancing politicians surrounded a doctor who took a man with influenza in his hand. Pépin (E. Guillaumin) was engraving wood in 1889.

The Russian flu, also called Asiatic flu, was also one of the worst influenza pandemics. The name of the Russian flu comes from its first recorded case was in Russia. It reached other continents in just four months because of the population’s fast growth in the 19th century. The Influenza A virus subtype H3N8 caused this disease. Additionally, it takes from one to four days for an infected person to hit with an array of symptoms. The main symptoms of this disease were fever, headache, and running cold. 

This worst pandemic reached Europe from the eastern countries during November or December in 1889. More than a million individuals died due to this pandemic. Children who have heart and lung problems and other chronic diseases are at higher risk. As a result of this disease in Malta, influenza became a strictly notifiable illness for the first time.

Scientists tried to identify the subtypes of Influenza A for many years, responsible for the 1889–1890, 1898–1900, and 1918 epidemics. At the beginning of this flu, people debated whether it was contagious or not. Still, the disease’s quick action and pervasiveness over every climate and terrain justified that it was.

  • Symptoms: Fever, running cold, and a headache.
  • Countries affected: Turkestan, Greenland, Canada.
  • Duration: one year (1889 – 1890).
  • Causes: H3N8 


third cholera pandemic
Pavel Fedotov’s painting shows death from cholera in the mid-19th century.
Image credit: Pavel Fedotov/Wikimedia Commons

One of the worst seven global Cholera outbreaks in history originated in India and spread through other countries such as Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa. In 1854, cholera took the lives of over 23,000 people in Great Britain. Approximately 10,000 of those deaths were from London. A bacterium, called Vibrio cholera, caused this infectious disease. Additionally, the ingestion of contaminated water or food takes 12 hours to 5 days to develop symptoms.

Cholera affects children as well as adults and can kill within hours if not treated. Approximately 80 percent of people infected with these bacteria do not show any symptoms. Among people who develop severe symptoms such as acute watery diarrhea, vomiting, and leg cramps can cause dehydration, septic shock, and even death. Today, people treated these worst pandemics through fluid replacement and antibiotics. The availability of Cholera vaccines can offer immunity of 65%, according to WHO.

British physician John Snow tracked cholera cases and eventually found the contaminated water as the cause of the disease transmission. The number of local cases dramatically decreased after John Snow’s findings, but the quantities continued to high in other regions for a few more years. People used a combination of surveillance, sanitation and hygiene, water, social mobilization, treatment, and oral cholera vaccines to prevent cholera.

  • Symptoms: Vomiting, cold skin, diarrhea, and muscle cramps.
  • Countries affected: Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America.
  • Duration: 14 years (1846-1860)
  • Causes: Vibrio cholera 


smallpox pandemic
A smallpox epidemic in Palestine: a child with smallpox.

Smallpox is one of the worst pandemics in history. Humans can only spread the disease that was endemic to Asia, Europe, and Arabia. The outbreak was responsible for three of every ten people it infected, and pockmarked scars appeared on those left. The Smallpox virus(variola virus) arrived with the first European explorers to the New World, where individuals were not immune to this disease.

The people of modern-day Mexico and the United States found death rates much higher than those of the Old World. The death rates of modern-day Mexico and the United States are much higher than those of the Old World. People who had smallpox had a high fever, prostration, a distinctive, progressive skin rash, and, in some cases, vomiting.

The outbreak includes blister-like lesions that take place all over the body. Survivors who overcame this stage would face deep, permanent scars and, often, blindness. It also spread via direct contact with fluids of the body or items such as bedding and clothing. The air in buildings or other enclosed spaces also can spread this virus, but that occurs less commonly. 

Researchers have no evidence to prove the insects or animals spread the disease. A vaccine that stopped the first virus epidemic, smallpox, for centuries later, and the World Health Organization announced that smallpox had removed over the world in 1980.

  • Symptoms: high fever, chills, abdominal pain, headache, severe back pain, vomiting
  • Countries affected: China, Korea, Spain, Portugal, Europe, India, Western Africa, America, Australia.
  • Duration: 1520-Unknown
  • Causes: Variola major, Variola minor


Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding (seen in green) from cultured lymphocyte. This image has been colored for highlighting essential features; see PHIL 1197 for the original black and white view of this image. Multiple round bumps on the surface of the cell represent sites of assembly and budding of virions.

AIDS is also one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. Researchers discovered the Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the early 1980s. This virus killed an estimated 35 million people. We are still battling HIV/AIDS originating from a chimpanzee virus from Central and West Africa. It was the first to act as a mysterious illness that primarily infecting gay men in the United States’ urban regions. 

People can get HIV only through specific activities, such as through sexual behaviors, needle, or syringe use. It is usually spread only through certain body fluids from a person who has HIV. These fluids include blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, pre-seminal fluids, and breast milk. Symptoms of HIV include fever, pneumonia, diarrhea, rapid weight loss, and sore throat.

And while medicine can make great strides and many countries managed this chronic condition in many ways. But this one of the worst pandemics ends still seems to be a very long way away. Now, most of those infected go on to lead useful lives. Awareness can make a huge impact. According to government data, approximately one million people in America currently have the disease. About 38,000 new HIV infections in a year still happen in the U.S.

  • Symptoms: Pneumonia, fever, diarrhea, rapid weight loss, and many more.
  • Countries affected: Worldwide.
  • Duration: 1980 and Continues
  • Causes: Human immunodeficiency virus


asian flu
One hundred sixty-eight sick conscripts by Asian flu in a sports arena att F 21 in Luleå. The picture was taken in 1957.

In the 20th century, another pandemic was the Asian Flu, also called the 1957–1958 influenza pandemic, influenza A of the H2N2 subtype. It was one of the most popular influenza pandemics in history. The origin of Asian flu was in China in early 1956 and lasted until 1958. The outbreak was responsible for an estimated 1.1 million deaths worldwide, with 116,000 deaths occurring in the United States. It traveled from Guizhou to Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United States in its two-year spree.

At the beginning stage of this pandemic, the virus spread throughout China and the surrounding areas. The Asian flu symptoms were similar to several other influenza strains, like fever, dry cough, body aches, chills, weakness, difficulty breathing, and appetite loss. A vaccine for H2N2, better health care, and the innovation of medicines like antibiotics can slow down the pandemic and provides a lower mortality rate.

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It mostly caused several infections in children that spread via schools. But this one of the worst pandemics was sometimes only fatal in children. The virus was dangerous in aged people, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing heart and lung disease. Based on the Journal of Infectious Diseases study, Latin America has the highest excess mortality. 

  • Symptoms: Cough, weakness, body aches, chills, fever, loss of appetite 
  • Countries affected: Worldwide. 
  • Duration: 2 years (1956 – 1958)
  • Causes: H2N2  


spanish flu
Beds with soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, in an emergency hospital ward in Camp Funston during the Spanish flu. The flu struck while America was at war and was transported across the Atlantic on troopships.
Image credit: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine/Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the worst influenza pandemics in history has ever witnessed. While approximately 500 million people infected with Spanish flu pushed the numerous indigenous communities to the brink of extinction. This disease’s death toll is put anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, as per the estimates. Almost 25 million of those deaths occurred in the outbreak’s first 25 weeks. It killed around 700,000 Americans. Additionally, it provided valuable lessons on social distancing.

The H1N1 influenza A virus caused the 1918 flu pandemic. Many people were experiencing problems such as cramped soldier conditions and poor nutrition during World War I, which caused the spread of the flu. Despite its name, the Spanish flu did not start in Spain. Then, how it got this name? The flu outbreak reports in the spring of 1918, in Madrid, gave that name. The primary symptoms of the disease were fever, fatigue, dry cough, and difficulty in breathing.

There was a makeshift hospital such as schools, private homes, and other buildings because of overcrowding in medical facilities. Officials imposed quarantines, ordered the people to wear masks, and shut down the businesses until the virus completed its deadly run. This 1918 pandemic was a little different than the Covid-19 outbreak as it causes the death of healthy juveniles altogether, leaving people with weaker immune systems and children.

  • Symptoms: Normal flu-like signs.
  • Countries affected: Originated in China and spread in Madrid.
  • Duration: 1 year (1918)
  • Causes: H1N1


plague of justinian
St Sebastian was pleading with Jesus for a gravedigger’s life afflicted with plague during the 7th-century Plague of Justinian.

The disease got its name from the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian, at the time. There is a double meaning, as the crisis handling of Justinian was almost its infection form. In the year 541 CE, the Plague of Justinian killed up to a quarter of the Byzantine Empire and Mediterranean port cities. It left its mark on the world at a point, killing as many as 5,000 people every day. Black rats on the grain boats and carts of Egypt brought a pestilence to the Eastern Roman Empire.

We do not know its exact symptoms. The bubonic plague symptoms include headaches, abdominal pain, fever, gangrene, chills, swollen or tender lymph nodes. A single bacterium, Yersinia pestis, caused three deadliest pandemics, a fatal infection known as the plague. Sometimes it occurs from exposure to body fluids from an animal infected with the deadly disease.

People used treatments like medical personnel or home remedies when once affected. Also, some people die almost immediately after shows the onset of symptoms. But people do not know about the full extent of the spread of the disease. But everyone knows that the Mediterranean cities were the hardest hit. Humans and animals of all types, such as cats and dogs, required proper disposal. Bodies were mainly disposed of in buildings, placed on boats for burials at sea, and dumped into the sea.

  • Symptoms: Chills, fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, and gangrene.
  • Countries affected: The empire of emperor Justinian I of Byzantine.
  • Duration: 9 years (541 – 549 AD)
  • Causes: Yersinia pestis


antonine plague
The angel of death struck a door during Rome’s plague: Levasseur’s engraving after Jules-Elie Delaunay.

When we talk about the plague, we are talking about this Antonine Plague usually. It is one of the oldest and deadliest pandemics in history that occurred in 165-180. The outbreak was far dangerous than the newly arrived COVID-19, but the province survived from it. The Romans brought this plague back home with them after war after a war against Parthia. They spread this disease unknowingly, but it took over 5 million people and destroyed the Roman army.

Either smallpox or measles caused them, but the actual reason is still unknown. People sometimes referred to it as the Plague of Galen. The Antonine Plague’s typical symptoms are fever, diarrhea, thirstiness, swollen throat, vomiting, and coughing. It also shows an inflammation at the throat’s backside and skin eruption with odd puss coming out of our body on the ninth day of sickness. 

The plague mostly affected the Roman Empire military. So, the Romans had to delay the primary offense against the Germanic people. Also, many towns and villages in the eastern provinces and the Italian peninsula lost all their residents.

  • Symptoms: Swollen and sore throat, and fever. 
  • Countries affected: Italy, Egypt, Greece, and Asia minor. 
  • Duration: 15 years (165 – 180)
  • Causes: Smallpox and Measles

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black death
An exhibit depicting a miniature from a Belgium manuscript at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv – en: Beit Hatefutsot. The museum note says, “The citizens of Toumai bury their dead during the black death. Miniature from a manuscript, Belgium, 14th century”. ( en:User: Sodabottle took the photo).
Image credit: Pierart dou Tielt/Wikimedia Commons

Black Death, generally known as the Great Bubonic Plague, is one of the most popular devastating pandemics. Some scholars suggest that it decimate more than half of the population of Europe in the mid-1300s. Yersinia pestis is a strain of the bacterium that caused the Black Death. The fleas on infected rodents spread these bacteria.

The Black Death’s main symptoms were black boils, chills, diarrhea, vomiting, and pain. Also, there was a fever, along with the swelling of the lymph glands, called buboes. The plague got its name from the reddish skin spots that turned black. But Medieval people thought that prayers and processions wiped out the disease and the transmission of the disease to people, mostly from the bites of infected rats and fleas.

The word ‘quarantine’ was coined in Venetians in the early 15th century, based on a forced 40-day isolation period. At least 60 percent of the population died in the rural and urban areas. The Black Death, one of the top worst pandemics, had killed almost 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa. The plague was very infectious among people from there. China was one of the busiest nations of trading, so the disease spread rapidly elsewhere. There were no known medicines.

  • Symptoms: Vomiting, black boils, chills, fever, and diarrhea, along with pain. 
  • Countries affected: Mostly, Europe and Asia. 
  • Duration: 23 years (1330 – 1353)
  • Causes: Yersinia pestis bacteria