What Is Ringworm?

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Ringworm—also known as tinea, tinea corporis, or dermatophytosis—is a skin infection caused by fungus. Most commonly, it causes ring-shaped rashes on different parts of the face or body. Ringworm may also be called athlete’s foot, scalp ringworm, or jock itch, depending on which part of the body is affected.

Anyone can get ringworm, but it’s especially common among children. Most people have a 10-20% risk of developing ringworm in their lifetime. Your chances of getting ringworm are higher if you live in a wet, warm environment, sweat frequently, or have pets at home. 

There are several types of ringworm, as well as multiple symptoms, causes, and risk factors. It's important to know these along with how to get a diagnosis and your options to prevent and treat ringworm.

Types of Ringworm

Ringworm symptoms can appear anywhere on your face or body, including on your toenails, fingernails, groin, scalp, and feet. Depending on which body part is infected, you may or may not have a circular rash.

Symptoms of a ringworm infection may appear on your:

  • Beard area (tinea barbae): Ringworm can cause hair loss and itchiness on the beard area, including the chin, cheeks, and neck, as well as scaly spots that fill with pus and crust over.
  • Scalp (tinea capitis): Particularly common in children, ringworm of the scalp causes one or more “bald spots.” The spots are often dry, discolored, and itchy. 
  • Feet (tinea pedis): Also known as athlete’s foot, this type of ringworm may appear on the heels or soles of the feet, as well as between the toes. The feet may have a foul smell and dry, itchy, irritated, sore, flaky, or peeling skin. Blisters or bleeding may develop in rare cases. 
  • Groin (tinea cruris): Also known as jock itch, ringworm of the groin can cause a swollen, itchy rash to develop on the inner thighs, buttocks, and waist. Sometimes the skin cracks or peels as it spreads.
  • Hands (tinea manuum): Many people with athlete’s foot develop ringworm on their hands after touching their feet. This causes dry skin and deep cracks on the palms of your hands. The infection may spread to your nails.
  • Nails (tinea unguium or onychomycosis): Nails become thickened or discolored when infected with ringworm. Over time, they may crumble or pull away from the skin underneath. You’re more likely to develop ringworm on your toenails or fingernails if you have ringworm on your feet or hands.

Ringworm Symptoms

Symptoms of ringworm usually develop about 4 to 14 days after coming into direct contact with the fungal pathogens that cause the infection. You may notice:

  • Circular skin rashes that expand over time
  • Raised, wavy borders around each patch 
  • Itchiness, swelling, scaliness, pain, thickening, or dryness in the affected area of the skin
  • Discoloration in the area of the rash, which may appear red, pink, brown, or gray 
  • The center of the rash typically clears first, leaving a ring-shaped border

Your symptoms will vary if you have ringworm on your nails, hands, groin, feet, scalp, or beard area.

What Causes Ringworm?

Ringworm is caused by fungi that thrive in humid, hot environments. These fungal pathogens can live on surfaces as well as on your skin. 

You can get or spread ringworm through any kind of contact with humans or animals, including touching or petting, as well as sharing household items like a comb or phone. You can also get ringworm by touching a surface where the fungi live, such as a shower floor. In rare cases, people get ringworm after touching infected soil.

Risk Factors

Certain factors like living in a tropical climate, spending a lot of time outdoors in humid, warm weather, or sweating heavily can increase your chances of getting ringworm.

You may also have a higher risk of getting ringworm if you:

  • Are immunocompromised
  • Have diabetes
  • Have previously had ringworm
  • Frequently play contact sports, such as martial arts or wrestling
  • Work or live in a crowded environment, such as a childcare center or military housing
  • Have pets at home, especially cats
  • Work with animals
  • Have certain other skin conditions, such as ichthyosis
  • Share towels, razors, or other personal items with other members of your household
  • Use public pools or showers, especially when barefoot

How Is Ringworm Diagnosed?

To diagnose you with ringworm, your healthcare provider (likely a dermatologist, a medical doctor who specializes in treating the skin) will look at your skin closely, ask you about your symptoms, and discuss any potential risk factors or concerns with you. 

After an assessment, they may send a small sample of your nails, hair, or skin to a laboratory for testing. This step is important because ringworm can easily be confused with other skin conditions. The results may come back right away, or testing could take several weeks to complete.

Treatments for Ringworm

Treatment for ringworm usually involves taking over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription antifungal medicines. Your healthcare provider may recommend an OTC spray, powder, or topical cream. Some OTC antifungal medications that are typically used to treat ringworm include:

  • Lotrimin (clotrimazole)
  • Lamisil (terbinafine)
  • Nizoral (ketoconazole)
  • Micatin (miconazole)

Usually, you’ll need to apply antifungal treatment for two to four weeks. If your ringworm symptoms persist, your dermatologist or another healthcare provider may prescribe a stronger antifungal medication.

Ringworm on the scalp is typically treated with prescription antifungal medicine in the form of a tablet, capsule, or liquid for up to three months. Some of the medications used to treat ringworm on the scalp include:

  • Lotrimin (terbinafine)
  • Sporanox (itraconazole)
  • Diflucan (fluconazole)
  • Gris-PEG (griseofulvin)

You may also need to use antifungal shampoo to avoid spreading ringworm to anyone else.

How to Prevent Ringworm

Ringworm is not typically dangerous, but it is contagious. If you think you or someone else has ringworm, you should avoid sharing bedding, clothing, towels, or other personal items with them.

There are a few other steps you can take to avoid getting or spreading ringworm:

  • Keep your nails short and clean.
  • Change your clothes and make sure your skin is dry right after showering or exercising.
  • Don’t share athletic gear with others.
  • Wear comfortable, breathable shoes and clothing. 
  • Wash your clothing often, and change your underwear and socks frequently.
  • Avoid walking barefoot in public showers, locker rooms, and saunas.
  • Wash your hands before and after playing with your pets.
  • Vacuum and thoroughly disinfect the areas of your house your pet plays in. This is especially important if they have or recently had ringworm. 
  • If you have to touch an animal with ringworm, wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and gloves. Don’t touch animals with ringworm if you are immunocompromised. 
  • Take your pet to a veterinarian right away if you think they might have ringworm. If you have multiple pets, check all of them for ringworm if one has it.

Living with Ringworm

Most cases of ringworm go away within two to four weeks of antifungal treatment. In rare cases, untreated or persistent ringworm can cause complications. This is especially common among people with weakened immune systems. 

Ringworm complications may include:

  • Hypopigmentation (lightening of the skin) or hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin) after your rash goes away
  • Secondary bacterial infections, which can affect major organs 
  • Disseminated eczema (inflammation of the skin) 
  • Psoriasis flares
  • Majocchi’s granuloma, a deep fungal infection often caused by the use of steroid creams in an effort to treat ringworm

If you notice signs of any of these complications or if your ringworm symptoms persist, talk to a healthcare provider right away.

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17 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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