Psoriasis vs. Ringworm: Tips for Identification

Medically reviewed by Mohamed Jalloh, PharmD on July 5, 2016Written by Kimberly Holland on October 22, 2015

Psoriasis and ringworm

Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition caused by the rapid growth of skin cells and inflammation. Psoriasis changes the life cycle of your skin cells. Typical cell turnover allows skin cells to grow, live, die, and slough off on a routine basis. Skin cells affected by psoriasis grow rapidly but don’t fall off. This causes a buildup of skin cells on the skin’s surface, which leads to thick, scaly patches of skin. These patches are most common on the knees, elbows, genitals, and toenails.

More than one type of psoriasis exists. The part of your body that’s affected by the skin condition and the symptoms you experience determines the type of psoriasis you have. Psoriasis isn’t contagious.

Ringworm (dermatophytosis) is a temporary red, circular rash that develops on your skin. It’s caused by a fungal infection. The rash typically appears as a red circle with clear skin in the center. The rash may or may not itch, and it may grow over time. It can also be spread if your skin makes contact with the skin of an infected human or animal. Despite its name, a worm doesn’t cause ringworm rashes.

Symptoms of psoriasis

Your symptoms of psoriasis may be different than someone else’s symptoms. Your symptoms may include:

  • red patches of skin
  • silvery scales over red patches of skin
  • small spots of scaling
  • dry, cracked skin that might bleed
  • itching or burning
  • soreness on spots
  • sore or stiff joints
  • thick, ridged, or pitted nails

Psoriasis may cause one or two patches, or it may cause clusters of patches that grow to cover a large area.

Psoriasis is a chronic condition. Treatment can reduce symptoms, but psoriasis patches may be an issue for the rest of your life. Thankfully, many people experience periods of low or no activity. These periods, which are called remission, may be followed by periods of increased activity.

Symptoms of ringworm

The signs and symptoms of ringworm will change if the infection gets worse. Your symptoms may include:

  • a red, scaly area that may or may not itch
  • a raised border around the scaly area
  • an expanding scaly area that forms a circle
  • a circle with red bumps or scales and a clear center

You may develop more than one circle, and these circles can overlap. Some of the borders of the circles may be uneven or irregular.

Treatment for psoriasis

Psoriasis doesn’t have a cure, but treatments can end or reduce outbreaks. The type of treatment you use will depend on the severity and type of psoriasis you have. The three main treatments for each of these categories are topical treatments, light therapy, and oral or injected medications.

Topical treatments

Your doctor may prescribe a medicated cream, ointment, and other solution to treat your mild to moderate psoriasis. These types of topical treatments include topical corticosteroids, topical retinoids, and salicylic acid.

Light therapy

Phototherapy uses light to halt or slow the growth of skin cells in the affected areas. These light sources include natural light (sunlight), UVB rays, photochemotherapy UVA, and lasers. Light therapy may be applied to your affected areas or to your whole body. Exposure to some of these light sources could make symptoms worse. Don’t use light therapy without your doctor’s guidance.

Oral or injected medications

Your doctor may prescribe one of these treatments if you have severe psoriasis or do not respond well to other treatments. These medications include NSAIDs, corticosteroids, or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs.

These drugs can help alter how the immune system works, resulting in slower skin cell growth and reduced inflammation.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs can be nonbiologics or biologics.

Nonbiologics include:

Biologics include:

These treatments often cause severe side effects. Their use is limited.

Your doctor may change your treatment if it doesn’t work or if the side effects are too severe. Your doctor may also recommend combination treatment, which means you use more than one treatment type. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), you may be able to use lower doses of each treatment when you combine them.

Read more: Is PUVA an effective treatment for psoriasis? »

Treatment for ringworm

Ringworm is caused by a fungal infection. An antifungal medication can treat ringworm. Some cases of ringworm will respond well to ointments or topical treatments. These treatments, including terbinafine (Lamisil AT), clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF), and ketoconazole may be purchased over the counter.

If the infection is severe, your doctor may give you a prescription for antifungal ointment or cream. More severe cases may require oral medication.

Outlook for psoriasis and ringworm

Both ringworm and psoriasis can be effectively managed and treated. Currently, psoriasis can’t be cured, but treatments can reduce symptoms.

Ringworm treatments can eliminate the infection. This will reduce the chances that you share it with other people. You may come into contact with the fungus that causes ringworm again in the future, and you could develop another infection.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment to see your dermatologist if you have developed an unusual spot on your skin. If you think you came into contact with a person or animal that has ringworm, be sure to tell your doctor. If you have a family history of psoriasis, mention that as well. In most cases, your doctor can diagnose the condition just by conducting a thorough skin exam.

If you’re diagnosed with either of these conditions and you begin experiencing any of the following symptoms, talk with your doctor as soon as you can. These symptoms include:

  • painful and swollen muscle joints
  • difficulty working because the affected area is swollen, painful, or preventing you from bending your joints properly
  • a concern about the appearance of your skin
  • interrupting your ability to perform routine tasks
  • a worsening rash that isn’t responding to treatment

Q:

What can I do to prevent the many conditions, such as ringworm, that can cause itchy scalp?

A:

An itchy scalp can be caused by many conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, ringworm, lice, or various other allergic reactions. The first thing to do in any of these cases is to stop scratching, as this may spread or cause an infection. Next, inspect your hair and scalp to look for signs of lice or patches of red skin. You will want to avoid hot showers, and catalog any foods you’ve eaten recently. If the itching lasts for more than a few days, you may want to see a dermatologist so they can diagnose the cause of your itchy scalp. 

Debra Sullivan PhD, MSN, CNE, COIAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

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