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What is ringworm?
Ringworm, also known as dermatophytosis, dermatophyte infection, or tinea, is a fungal infection of the skin.
“Ringworm” is a misnomer, since a fungus, not a worm, causes the infection. The lesion caused by this infection resembles a worm in the shape of a ring — hence the name.
Ringworm is usually specifically used to describe tinea corporis (ringworm of the body), although it can sometimes be used to describe tinea infection in other locations, such as tinea cruris (ringworm of the groin).
Ringworm infection can affect both humans and animals. The infection initially appears as red patches on affected areas of the skin and later may spread to other parts of the body. It may affect the scalp, feet, nails, groin, beard, or other areas.
Symptoms vary depending on where you’re infected. With a skin infection, you may experience the following:
- red, itchy, or scaly patches, or raised areas of skin called plaques
- patches that develop blisters or pustules
- patches that may be redder on the outside edges or resemble a ring
- patches with edges that are defined and raised
If you’re experiencing dermatophytosis in your nails, they may become thicker or discolored, or they may begin to crack. This is called dermatophytic onychomycosis, or tinea unguium. If your scalp is affected, the hair around it may break or fall off, and bald patches may develop. The medical term for this is tinea capitis. Find out more about scalp ringworm and its effects.
Three different types of fungi can cause ringworm: Trichophyton, Microsporum, and Epidermophyton. It’s possible that these fungi may live for an extended period as spores in soil. Humans and animals can contract ringworm after direct contact with this soil.
The infection can also spread through contact with infected animals or humans. The infection is commonly spread among children and by sharing items harboring the fungus.
Different types of fungi cause ringworm. Doctors call ringworm different names depending on where it affects the body:
- Ringworm of the scalp (tinea capitis) often starts as isolated scaling in the scalp that develops into itchy, scaly bald patches. It’s most common among children.
- Ringworm of the body (tinea corporis) often appears as patches with the characteristic round ring shape.
- Jock itch (tinea cruris) refers to ringworm infection of the skin around the groin, inner thighs, and buttocks. It’s most common in men and adolescent boys.
- Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) is the common name for ringworm infection of the foot. It’s frequently seen in people who go barefoot in public places where the infection can spread, such as locker rooms, showers, and swimming pools.
Your doctor will diagnose ringworm by examining your skin and possibly using a black light to view your skin in the affected area. Depending on the type of fungus, it may sometimes fluoresce (glow) under black light.
Your doctor may confirm a suspected diagnosis of ringworm by requesting certain tests:
- If you’re getting either a skin biopsy or fungal culture, your doctor will take a sample of your skin or discharge from a blister and send it to a lab to test it for the presence of fungus.
- If you’re getting a KOH exam, your doctor will scrape off a small area of infected skin onto a slide and place drops of a liquid called potassium hydroxide (KOH) on it. The KOH breaks apart normal skin cells, making the fungal elements easier to see under a microscope.
Your doctor may recommend both medications and lifestyle adjustments to treat ringworm.
Your doctor may prescribe various medications depending on the severity of your ringworm infection. Jock itch, athlete’s foot, and ringworm of the body can all be treated with topical medications, such as antifungal creams, ointments, gels, or sprays.
Ringworm of the scalp or nails may require prescription-strength oral medications such as griseofulvin (Gris-PEG) or terbinafine.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications and antifungal skin creams may be recommended for use as well. These products may contain clotrimazole, miconazole, terbinafine, or other related ingredients. Find antifungal treatments online.
In addition to prescription and OTC medication, your doctor may recommend that you care for your infection at home by:
- washing bedding and clothes daily during an infection to help disinfect your surroundings
- drying areas thoroughly after bathing
- wearing loose clothing in affected areas
- treating all infected areas (not treating tinea pedis can lead to recurrence of tinea cruris)
People have used home remedies for ringworm for many years before researchers invented antifungal treatments. Support for use of these remedies is mostly anecdotal. There is no scientific data to support their use over OTC antifungals.
These treatments include:
Apple cider vinegar
Some people apply apple cider vinegar-soaked cotton balls over affected areas of skin three times a day to treat ringworm.
Coconut oil isn’t just for cooking — people apply it to their skin to reduce the incidence of ringworm infections. If you want to try this remedy, apply coconut oil one to three times a day.
Turmeric is a spice you can mix with water to make an antifungal paste. Apply the paste directly to your skin and allow it to dry.
A caution about home remedies
Home remedies shouldn’t be used in place of known antifungal treatments. Instead, discuss any you might like to try alongside proven treatments with your doctor. Learn more about home remedies for ringworm, including powdered licorice.
You won’t see ringworm right away when the fungus has infected you. It can take up to 2 weeks before you start noticing symptoms. Some of the stages you may see include:
- Initial stage. During this stage, you may notice a pink or red irritated patch of skin. Sometimes, it just appears very dry and scaly — not necessarily like ringworm.
- Second stage. During this stage, you’ll notice the lesion starts to grow in size. The center of the rash may resemble healthy skin with a surrounding scaly area.
Because ringworm is so contagious, you’ll want to start treatment at the first signs you notice. If you don’t, it may spread and grow.
Anyone can develop ringworm. However, the infection is very common among children and people who own cats or dogs. Both cats and dogs can catch ringworm, and then pass it on to humans who touch them.
Signs to be aware of in pets include:
- hairless patches of skin that appear circular
- crusty or scaly patches
- patches that may not be completely hairless but have brittle or broken hairs
- opaque or whitish areas around the claws
If you suspect your pet has ringworm, bring them to your veterinarian to have them looked at.
You may be more likely to develop dermatophytosis if you come into contact with the fungi when your skin becomes soft and wet from prolonged water exposure (macerated) or if you have minor skin injuries or abrasions. Using a public shower or public pool may also expose you to the infective fungi.
If you’re often barefoot, you may develop ringworm of the feet (athlete’s foot). Those who often share items such as hairbrushes or unwashed clothing also have an increased risk of developing the infection.
Ringworm can closely resemble another condition, nummular eczema. Doctors also call nummular eczema discoid eczema or nummular dermatitis.
What’s similar between the two conditions is they both cause round or coin-shaped lesions on the skin. The lesions are often itchy and scaly.
A person with ringworm usually has fewer ring-like patches than a person who has nummular eczema. Also, nummular eczema usually doesn’t have clearing in the center, while ringworm does.
Ringworm may also have pustules associated with it, while nummular eczema doesn’t.
Sometimes the two conditions look so much alike that the only way to tell the difference is to see your doctor. A doctor can take samples of the skin cells and send them to a laboratory for testing.
Doctors treat nummular eczema in different ways from ringworm. They use topical steroids, which if used for ringworm infections, can mask as well as worsen the infection. Antifungal ointments won’t help nummular eczema. Learn more about differences between the two and how to treat them.
Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts from flowers, herbs, and other plant types. Often, people purchase these oils and dilute them with a carrier oil, such as olive oil or coconut oil, before applying to their skin.
There is no scientific data to support the routine use of essential oils in treating antifungal infections like ringworm, only anecdotal evidence. Essential oils should be discussed with your doctor before use and shouldn’t replace conventional treatments.
Some of the essentials oils people use to treat ringworm include:
Oregano oil is potent and can potentially act as an antifungal. You can purchase oregano oil as an extract, but don’t apply it directly to your skin as is. You’ll need to mix it with coconut or olive oil to slightly dilute it first.
Lemongrass oil is an essential oil that might also act against ringworm. You must mix it with a carrier oil such as olive or coconut oil before applying it to the affected area.
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is another oil that is believed to have antifungal properties. For ringworm, you can apply it to an affected area of skin at least three times a day. If you find that tea tree oil is too irritating, mix the oil in coconut oil to dilute it.
These are just some examples of essential oils used to relieve ringworm symptoms. Read more about how tea tree oil can treat ringworm.
Psoriasis is another skin condition that can sometimes resemble ringworm. Plaque psoriasis is a disorder due to immune dysfunction that produces inflammatory plaques on the skin. It appears as pink plaques with heavy white scales. Small isolated plaques can sometimes look similar to ringworm.
Both ringworm and psoriasis can cause red patches of skin as well as skin itching and scaling.
However, ringworm on your trunk or limbs (tinea corporis) will usually have a circular appearance with clearing in the middle. It will also usually be an isolated spot (or limited to only a few lesions).
Plaque psoriasis skin lesions are usually larger, involve more areas of the skin, and occur in distinct locations (lower back, elbows, knees). Psoriasis lesions also don’t have clearing (normal-appearing skin) in the middle of its lesions.
The conditions have different underlying causes as well. A fungus causes ringworm, while a dysfunctional immune system causes psoriasis. Find out how to identify ringworm and psoriasis.
If left untreated, ringworm can spread to other areas of the body. A person can also risk spreading the infection to someone else. Other potential areas of complication include:
- hair loss and scarring
- nail deformities
The complications of tinea capitis (ringworm of the scalp) are especially worrisome, since it can produce life-long permanent hair loss. When considering these potential complications, it’s best to treat ringworm as quickly as possible.
Practicing healthy and hygienic behaviors can prevent ringworm. Infections may come from contact with animals and lack of proper hygiene. Here are several tips to avoid ringworm:
- Wash your hands after interacting with an animal.
- Disinfect and clean pet living areas.
- Avoid people or animals with ringworm if you have a weakened immune system.
- Wear shoes if showering or walking in community areas.
- Avoid sharing personal items like clothing or hairbrushes with people who might have ringworm.
- Keep your skin clean and dry.
If you get ringworm during pregnancy, there are medications you can use to destroy ringworm-causing fungi that aren’t known to cause any problems to a baby. Examples of these drugs (fine to use when applied topically) include:
- ciclopirox (Loprox)
- clotrimazole (Lotrimin)
- naftifine (Naftin)
- oxiconazole (Oxistat)
However, it’s always best to talk to your doctor before using any medications while pregnant. Most medications can’t be properly studied in pregnant women due to the ethical implications of these studies. So it’s nearly impossible to say with full certainty that a medication, whether topical or oral, will be safe to use.
As well, you should talk to your doctor before using any medications if you are breastfeeding.
Doctors don’t recommend taking some medicines because they have the potential to cause known unwanted side effects. Examples include:
- oral ketoconazole
- oral miconazole
Doctors don’t usually recommend taking oral medications to treat fungal infections during pregnancy.
Regardless of the medication of choice, if you’re pregnant and have ringworm, it’s best to ask your doctor first before using any kind of medication or home remedy to treat your condition.
You can get ringworm from your dog. Dogs can pick up fungus spores from the environment, and the spores get left behind on whatever the dog’s hair touches. Examples include:
- dog brushes
- food bowls
Watch your dog regularly for signs that they may have ringworm. They will usually have a loss of fur on their skin, often in a circular pattern. If you observe this, contact your dog’s veterinarian.
You should also wash your hands frequently after petting your dog to reduce infection risk whenever possible.
According to the American Kennel Club, cats are more prone to getting ringworm than dogs are. They can pass the condition along to their human owners as well.
Like ringworm in dogs, if you spot ringworm in cats, call the veterinarian. They can prescribe antifungal treatments. You should also always wash your hands after petting your cat and try to clean all of the items they come in contact with, such as brushes and water bowls.
If you do get ringworm from your cat, you can treat it the same as you would any fungal infection. This includes topical antifungals.
Skin medications may clear ringworm on your trunk and limbs in 2 to 4 weeks.
If you’re experiencing severe dermatophytosis that isn’t responding to OTC treatments or treatment at home, or you suspect tinea infection of the scalp or hair follicles, your doctor may prescribe antifungal pills to clear up the infection.
Most people respond positively to treatment.