What is ringworm?

You might be surprised to learn that a fungus — and not a worm — causes ringworm. This common and highly contagious skin infection gets its name from the red, itchy, ring-shaped skin rash that forms.

You get ringworm from touching an infected person, animal or object. Ringworm goes by different names depending on which body part it affects. Common ringworm infections include jock itch (groin), athlete’s foot and scalp ringworm. Ringworm is also known by the medical terms tinea and dermatophytosis. Treatments can get rid of the fungus and keep it from spreading to other parts of your body.

How common is ringworm?

The ringworm fungus are both extremely contagious and extremely common. Some studies estimate that 20-25% of the world’s population is affected by a superficial fungal infection of the skin or nails at any given time. Most people develop at least one type of ringworm infection at some point in their lives.

Who might get ringworm?

This highly contagious fungal infection affects people of all ages. You’re more at risk for ringworm if you:

  • Have a weakened immune system or an autoimmune disease like lupus.
  • Participate in high-contact sports, such as wrestling (this ringworm infection is called tinea gladiatorum).
  • Sweat excessively (hyperhidrosis).
  • Use public locker rooms or public showers.
  • Work closely with animals that might have ringworm.

What are the types of ringworm?

Ringworm goes by different names based on where it shows up on your body. Ringworm infections include:

  • Athlete’s foot: Also called tinea pedis, this fungal infection causes an itchy, burning skin rash between your toes and on the soles of your feet. Your skin may become scaly and cracked or develop blisters. Sometimes, your feet smell bad.
  • Jock itch: Tinea cruris, or jock itch, causes a red, itchy rash in your groin, upper thighs or rectum. Some people get blisters.
  • Scalp ringworm: Tinea capitis affects children more than adults. It causes scaly, red, itchy bald spots on the scalp. If left untreated, the bald spots can grow bigger and become permanent.

Is ringworm contagious?

Ringworm is very contagious. You can pick up ringworm through direct contact with:

  • An infected person.
  • An infected dog, cat or livestock animal (cow, goat, horse, pig).
  • A contaminated surface, such as a locker room floor or sweaty gym clothes.
  • Contaminated soil.

What causes ringworm?

Despite its creepy-crawly name, a fungus causes ringworm. Like mushrooms, yeast and other fungi, ringworm thrives in dark, moist, warm places. You can pick up this infection anytime your skin comes into contact with the ringworm fungus.

What are the symptoms of ringworm?

Ringworm can appear on any part of your body. Symptoms include:

  • Circular, ring-shaped rash.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Scaly, cracked skin.
  • Redness.
  • Hair loss or bald spots.

How is ringworm diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can diagnose ringworm by looking at your skin and assessing your symptoms. Your provider may scrape the area, to look at the scale under a microscope (KOH preparation). If still unable to make the diagnosis, your provider may take a sample of the infected area (biopsy) to check for the presence of ringworm fungus.

How can I get rid of ringworm?

Ringworm treatment varies depending on which part of your body is infected. Ringworm treatments include:

  • Antifungal creams or powders: Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription antifungal creams or powders work well on athlete’s foot and jock itch. These products include clotrimazole (Lotrimin®), miconazole (Desenex®) and terbinafine (Lamisil AT®).
  • Oral antifungal medication: For scalp ringworm, your healthcare provider will prescribe an oral antifungal medication. You’ll need to take this medication for one to three months to get rid of the fungus completely. If you stop treatment too soon, the infection may come back and be harder to treat. Oral antifungal medications include fluconazole (Diflucan®), griseofulvin (Griasctin®), itraconazole (Sporanox®) and terbinafine (Lamisil®).
  • Antifungal shampoo: Your provider may prescribe an antifungal shampoo, such as ketoconazole shampoo (Nizoral A-D®), to stop scalp ringworm from spreading. But antifungal shampoo won’t cure scalp ringworm. You also need to take a prescribed oral antifungal medication. Uninfected family members may also need to use the shampoo to keep from getting ringworm.

You should also treat your home to get rid of ringworm. The fungus that causes ringworm can live on surfaces and items for months. You can kill the fungus with disinfectant sprays like Lysol® or bleach. Wash clothes, sheets and towels often in hot water and detergent.

What are the complications of ringworm?

If you suspect you or your child has ringworm, do not use anti-itch creams containing corticosteroids. These creams weaken the skin’s defenses. They can allow the infection to spread and cover larger sections of skin. On rare occasions, the ringworm fungus goes deeper into the skin, making it even harder to treat.

Scalp ringworm can lead to a painful inflammation called kerion. With kerion, you may develop pus-filled sores that turn yellow and crusty. You may also experience hair loss and scarring that can be permanent.

How does ringworm affect pregnancy?

Ringworm fungus won’t affect your unborn baby. Still, you should check with your healthcare provider before using over-the-counter antifungal creams or powders. Oral antifungal medications appear to be safe to take during pregnancy. Your healthcare provider can discuss potential risks.

How can I prevent ringworm?

Ringworm thrives in damp, warm places. The fungus can live on towels, clothes, sheets and surfaces for months. You can keep from getting ringworm and stop an existing infection from spreading by:

  • Changing your socks and underwear daily or more frequently if they become damp or soiled.
  • Showering immediately after contact sports or exercise.
  • Wearing sandals or shower shoes at the pool and in public locker rooms and showers.
  • Drying your skin thoroughly after showering, including between your toes.
  • Not sharing towels, washcloths, sheets, clothes, combs or other personal hygiene items.
  • Washing clothes, athletic gear, sheets and towels in hot water and detergent.
  • Disinfecting surfaces with bleach or sprays like Lysol®.
  • Treating pets for ringworm, if needed (there isn’t a vaccine).
  • Washing hands thoroughly after contact with animals.

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with ringworm?

When you treat it appropriately, with the right antifungal medications, ringworm will go away. Follow your healthcare provider’s treatment plan until the infection clears completely. If you stop treatment too soon, the infection can come back. While treating ringworm, take steps to keep it from spreading to other parts of your body or to other people.

When should I call the doctor?

Call your healthcare provider if the ringworm infection:

  • Appears on your scalp.
  • Doesn’t improve or go away with treatment.
  • Looks infected (redness and swelling).
  • Occurs during pregnancy.
  • Spreads to large areas of the body.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

You are sure to have questions if you or your child develop ringworm. You might ask your healthcare provider:

  • How did I get ringworm?
  • How long is ringworm contagious?
  • Should I (or my child) stay home from work (or school) until the ringworm infection is gone?
  • What steps can I take to prevent ringworm from spreading to other parts of my body?
  • What steps can I take to prevent ringworm from spreading to other people?
  • What’s the best treatment for ringworm?
  • Should I avoid any medications or treatments?
  • What steps can I take to keep from getting ringworm again?
  • How can I tell if my pet has ringworm?
  • Should I look out for signs of complications?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Ringworm is pretty unpleasant, but antifungal medications will help you get rid of the fungus that causes ringworm. The treatment may take a little time, but it's important to follow your healthcare provider’s treatment plan for as long as recommended. Ending treatment too soon can cause ringworm to return and make the infection harder to treat. Ask your provider about how you can keep ringworm from spreading to other parts of your body and to other people.

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