Ringworm is a fungal infection that causes a ring-shaped infection on the skin. Conditions like eczema and psoriasis can sometimes resemble ringworm, but there are key differences in appearance and treatment.
Ringworm — also known as dermatophytosis, dermatophyte infection, or tinea — is a fungal infection of the skin.
Read on to learn how to recognize when you have ringworm, its symptoms, causes, treatment, and more.
“Ringworm” is actually a misnomer since it’s a fungus and not a worm that causes the infection. The lesion caused by this infection resembles a worm in the shape of a ring, which is why it got its name.
Ringworm is usually specifically used to describe tinea corporis (ringworm of the body) or tinea capitis (ringworm of the scalp). It’s sometimes used to describe tinea infection in other locations, such as tinea cruris (ringworm of the groin).
Ringworm initially appears as discolored, often scaly patches on affected areas. These patches typically appear red on lighter skin or brown-gray on darker skin.
Symptoms vary depending on where the infection occurs. With a skin infection, you may experience the following:
- itchy or scaly patches that are red, brown, or gray, or raised areas of skin called plaques
- a round, flat patch of itchy skin
- patches that develop blisters or pustules
- patches that resemble a ring with deeper color on the outside
- patches with edges that are defined and raised
- overlapping rings
- hair loss
Symptoms by type
Ringworm can look different depending on which part of the body is affected. Doctors call ringworm different names depending on where it appears on the body.
- Ringworm of the body: Tinea corporis often appears as patches with the characteristic round ring shape on your torso or limbs.
- 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. Hair around the affected area may break or fall off, and bald patches may develop.
- Ringworm of the beard: Tinea barbae affects your cheeks, chin, and upper neck and can cause bald patches. This may look like acne, folliculitis, or another skin condition. Some people experience fatigue or swollen lymph nodes.
- Ringworm of the hand: Tinea manuum is usually caused by touching another affected area, such as your groin or foot. Infection of the hand may look like very dry skin with deep cracks on the palm. If the infection spreads, you may see ring-shaped patches on the back of your hand.
- Jock itch: Tinea cruris is a ringworm infection of the skin around the groin, inner thighs, and buttocks. It’s
most commonin men and adolescent boys. It usually starts as an itchy red, brown, or gray rash where your leg and body meet. The itching may intensify after exercise and may not improve after using an anti-itch cream such as a steroid cream. The steroid cream could actually worsen the jock itch rash.
- Athlete’s foot: Tinea pedis is a ringworm infection of the foot. It’s frequently seen in people who walk barefoot in public places where the infection can spread, such as locker rooms, showers, and swimming pools. This starts as dry scaly skin between your toes that may spread to your sole and heel and leads to symptoms like itching, stinging, burning, as well as blistering or peeling skin, along with a foul odor.
- Tinea unguium: This is a type of fungal ringworm infection of the nails. It affects toenails more than fingernails, as footwear often provides a moist, warm environment that fungi prefer. The affected nails may become thicker or discolored. They may even begin to crack or lift away from your nail bed.
Symptoms by stage
You won’t see ringworm right away when you first pick up the fungus. It can take up to 3 weeks before you start noticing symptoms. Some of the stages you may see include:
- Initial stage: During this stage, you may notice a discolored, 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.
It’s important to start treatment at the first signs of a ringworm infection. If you don’t, it may spread and grow.
These fungi can live on your skin and other surfaces, particularly damp areas. They may also live for an extended period of time as spores in the soil.
Is ringworm contagious?
Ringworm fungi are very contagious and can spread to humans in four ways:
- Human to human: You can get the infection if you come in contact with a person who has ringworm or if you share personal items, such as combs or towels. The infection is commonly spread among children and by sharing items harboring the fungus.
- Animal to human: You can get ringworm after touching an affected animal or even items the animal has come in contact with. Cats and dogs are
common sources, but other animals, such as farm animals, can spread fungi as well. The animals pick up the fungus spores from the environment, and the spores transfer to whatever the animal’s hair touches. According to the American Kennel Club, cats are more prone to getting ringworm than dogs.
- Object to human: You may get the infection if you come in contact with an object or surface that has it, such as a telephone or the floor of a public shower. These fungi thrive in damp environments.
- Soil to human: Humans and animals can get ringworm after direct contact with soil that is carrying the fungi.
Will ringworm go away on its own?
Ringworm could go away on its own, but it’s likely to take longer than with treatment and is more likely with milder cases. Learn more about the length of contagion for ringworm.
Your doctor may give you a diagnosis of ringworm after examining your skin and possibly using a black light to view the affected area. Depending on the type of fungus, it may sometimes fluoresce (glow) under black light.
Your doctor may confirm a 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 for the presence of fungus.
- If you’re getting a KOH exam, your doctor will scrape off a small area of affected skin onto a slide and place drops of a liquid called potassium hydroxide (KOH) on it. The KOH breaks apart typical skin cells, making the fungal elements easier to see under a microscope.
The treatment will depend on the type of ringworm you have and what part of your body it affects.
Your doctor may prescribe topical or oral antifungals depending on the severity of your ringworm infection and what part of your body it affects.
They may also recommend OTC medications and antifungal creams containing clotrimazole, miconazole, terbinafine, or related ingredients.
While getting treatment, make sure to wash your bedding and clothing daily to help disinfect your surroundings. Dry your skin thoroughly after bathing and wear only loose clothing in the affected areas.
Take an in-depth look at ringworm treatments.
People have long used home remedies for ringworm such as apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, turmeric, and certain essential oils.
However, these treatments are not scientifically proven, so it’s a good idea to consult a doctor before trying them. Home remedies shouldn’t replace known antifungal treatments.
Learn more about home remedies for ringworm.
Treatment during pregnancy
If you get ringworm during pregnancy, there are topical medications
These drugs aren’t known to cause problems for a baby. However, consult your doctor before using any medications while pregnant. Doctors usually don’t recommend oral medications like ketoconazole and miconazole due to their potential side effects during pregnancy.
You should also talk with your doctor before using any medications if you’re breastfeeding or chestfeeding.
Anyone can get ringworm, but you may be
- live in a warm, humid environment or climate
- participate in contact sports, like wrestling or football
- use public showers or locker rooms
- come in close contact with animals
- wear tight shoes or clothes that chafe your skin
- have diabetes
- have obesity or are overweight
- sweat excessively
- have a weakened immune system
- go barefoot in public showers or pools
Practicing healthy and hygienic behaviors can help prevent ringworm. Infections may come from contact with animals and lack of hygiene. Several tips to prevent ringworm include:
- washing your hands after interacting with an animal
- disinfecting and cleaning pet living areas
- limiting contact with people or animals with ringworm if you have a weakened immune system
- wearing shoes if showering or walking in community areas
- not sharing personal items like clothing, towels, or hairbrushes with people who might have ringworm
- changing your socks and underwear at least once a day
- keeping your gear and uniform clean if you play sports
- keeping your skin clean and dry
To reduce the chance of transmission, it’s also important to avoid prolonged water exposure in public showers or
pools because wet skin can make you more susceptible to infection.
If left untreated, ringworm can spread to other areas of your body. You may also risk spreading the infection to someone else. Other potential complications include:
- hair loss and scarring
- dark marks left on your skin, particularly on darker skin
- nail deformities
- secondary infection if any bacteria entered broken skin
- Majocchi’s granuloma — a rare infection where the fungus has made its way to deeper layers of the skin
The complications of tinea capitis can be worrisome because it can produce lifelong permanent hair loss. When considering these potential complications, it’s best to treat ringworm as quickly as possible.
Two skin conditions can resemble ringworm. They are:
- Nummular eczema: This kind of eczema is similar to ringworm because it also causes round or coin-shaped lesions on your skin. Often, the only way to tell the difference is to have your doctor take samples of the skin cells and send them to a laboratory for testing.
- Plaque psoriasis: This is a disorder causing inflammatory plaques on your skin. Small, isolated plaques can sometimes look similar to ringworm.
Skin medications may clear ringworm on your torso and limbs in 2–4 weeks.
If you’re experiencing severe dermatophytosis that isn’t responding to OTC treatments or home remedies, or if you suspect a tinea infection of your scalp or hair follicles, your doctor may prescribe antifungal pills to clear up the infection.
Most people respond positively to treatment.