What Exactly Do Incidence and Prevalence Mean?

When you're reading medical studies, these words crop up pretty frequently

graph showing incidence and prevalence
Incidence and prevalence. artpartner-images/Getty Images

 The terms incidence and prevalence refer to the number of people who have a particular medical condition. "Incidence" means the number of people who are newly diagnosed with a condition, while "prevalence" includes newly diagnosed people, plus people who were diagnosed in the past with the condition, plus (possibly, if we know) people who haven't been diagnosed.

These terms are confusing, and some people actually use them interchangeably (even though they're definitely not interchangeable!).


Think of it this way: incidence provides us with information about the current risk of getting a certain disease, while prevalence tells us how many people are living with the condition, regardless of when (or whether) they've been diagnosed with it. When you read news about medical studies, these two terms are important to know (and they're used frequently, too). 

Incidence and Prevalence Come from Epidemiology

Both incidence and prevalence are words used in the field of epidemiology. Epidemiology is a branch of medicine that looks at (you probably guessed it) how many people have a particular disease, what the risks are of contracting a disease, what the outcomes are from that disease, and ultimately, how to prevent disease from occurring.

One more term from epidemiology you should know: population. Epidemiologists study specific populations of people — for example, they might study adults who live in the U.S. Populations can be broad (all the children in China) or more specific (all elderly people of Asian decent living in New York City).

Defining specific populations allows epidemiologists to determine what specific factors contribute to their disease risk, and how those risk factors might differ from risk factors for other populations.

More on Incidence vs. Prevalence

Here are some specific examples that might help you to get a handle on incidence and prevalence.

If, for example, we say the incidence of celiac disease in active military personnel in the U.S. was 6.5 in 100,000 in 2008, that means six-and-a-half active military members for every 100,000 active military members were diagnosed with celiac disease in 2008. (There's actually a study showing this.)

Incidence tells you how many people were diagnosed with a particular disease in a particular population of people. In that case, the disease studied was celiac disease, and the population studied was active U.S. military personnel. 

Prevalence, meanwhile, tells you how many people have a particular condition, regardless of whether they were just diagnosed, or even whether they've been diagnosed at all.

To stick with our celiac disease example, the most recent estimate of celiac disease prevalence in the United States in people six years and older indicates that prevalence is 0.71%. That means about one in every 141 people ages six and older in the United States has celiac disease, although according to that study, most people with the condition (about 83%) don't realize they have it.

Cautions on Using Incidence and Prevalence

You can't assume the numbers in one study on incidence or prevalence will apply to another population of people.

For example, just because the prevalence of celiac disease in the United States is 0.71% (one in every 141 people above age six), you can't assume the prevalence of celiac in other countries — say, in Asian countries — is the same as it is in the U.S., since those populations have different genetics and follow different diets and lifestyles. 

In fact, the prevalence of celiac disease is very low in many Asian countries, in part because the genes for celiac disease aren't as common in Asian populations. However, the prevalence of celiac disease in Europe is close to the prevalence in the U.S., since genetics and diet in those two populations of people are similar.


Altobelli E et al. Burden of celiac disease in Europe: a review of its childhood and adulthood prevalence and incidence as of September 2014. Annali di Igiene. 2014 Nov-Dec;26(6):485-98.

Cummins AG et al. Prevalence of celiac disease in the Asia-Pacific region. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2009 Aug;24(8):1347-51.

Rubio-Tapia A et al. The prevalence of celiac disease in the United States. American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2012 Oct;107(10):1538-44; quiz 1537, 1545.

Continue Reading