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What is ringworm?
You might be surprised to learn that a fungus — and not a worm — causes ringworm. Fungi thrive in warm and humid areas such as locker rooms and public showers. This common and contagious skin infection gets its name from the red, itchy, ring-shaped skin plaque (a type of scaly rash). It spreads easily and through close contact.
You get ringworm from contact with an infected person, animal or object. Ringworm goes by different names depending on which body part it affects. Ringworm on your body is called tinea corporis. This type of ringworm affects your arms, legs, torso and face. Ringworm is treated with antifungal medication available either over the counter or as a prescription.
Types of ringworm
Ringworm has different names based on where it appears on your body — and it can appear just about anywhere. 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): This causes scaly, red, itchy bald spots on your scalp. If left untreated, the bald spots can grow bigger and become permanent.
- Hands (tinea manuum): Signs of ringworm on your hands include dry, cracked palms and ring-like patches.
- Beard (tinea barbae): Ringworm appears on your neck, chin and cheeks. The patches might become crusted over or filled with pus.
- Toenails or fingernails (tinea unguium or onychomycosis): Nails become thick, discolored and deformed.
What does ringworm look like?
Ringworm typically begins as a flat, discolored patch, which may appear red in lighter complexions and brown in darker complexions. The patch has a ring-like or circular shape with a raised, scaly border.
Who gets ringworm?
Ringworm 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 is called tinea gladiatorum).
- Sweat excessively (hyperhidrosis).
- Use public locker rooms or public showers.
- Work closely with animals that might have ringworm.
How common is ringworm?
Ringworm is contagious and extremely common. It can affect 20% to 25% of the world’s population at any given time.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the signs of ringworm?
Signs typically appear between four and 14 days after your skin comes in contact with the fungi that cause ringworm, including:
- Circular, ring-shaped scales or plaques.
- Flat patches with a raised, round border.
- Itchy skin.
- Hair loss or bald spots in the affected area.
What causes ringworm?
Despite its name, a fungus causes ringworm. This type of fungus naturally lives on your skin, hair and nails. However, when their environment gets hot and damp, the fungi start growing uncontrollably. You can get this infection anytime your skin comes into contact with the ringworm fungus on someone else’s skin.
How contagious is ringworm?
Ringworm is contagious. It can live on your skin, on surfaces and in soil. The main ways ringworm spreads are:
- Skin-to-skin contact with a person who has ringworm.
- Contact with an infected dog, cat or animal (livestock or pets).
- Contact with a contaminated surface, such as a locker room floor or sweaty gym clothes.
- Sharing objects with an infected person or animal such as a brush, towel or bedding.
- Contaminated soil.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is ringworm diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can diagnose ringworm by looking at your skin and assessing your symptoms. They may scrape the area to look at the skin cells under a microscope, too. Examining the scales typically confirms ringworm.
Management and Treatment
How is ringworm treated?
Several nonprescription (over-the-counter) and prescription antifungal medications are available to treat ringworm. Antifungals come in various forms like creams, gels or powders. Your healthcare provider can treat more widespread ringworm with oral antifungal medication.
Antifungal creams and powders
Over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal creams, gels or powders typically work well. OTC products include:
- Clotrimazole (Lotrimin® or Mycelex®).
- Miconazole (Desenex®).
- Terbinafine (Lamisil AT®).
- Tolnaftate (Tinactin®).
If your symptoms get worse or don’t clear after two weeks, you may need an oral prescription medication from your healthcare provider.
Your healthcare provider may write you a prescription for oral antifungal medication if you have ringworm on your scalp or on many parts of your body. Most medications are prescribed for between one and three months. Oral antifungal medications include:
- Fluconazole (Diflucan®).
- Griseofulvin (Griasctin®).
- Itraconazole (Sporanox®).
- Terbinafine (Lamisil®).
Antifungal shampoo, such as ketoconazole shampoo (Nizoral A-D®), may stop scalp ringworm from spreading. It won’t cure it, but it may help contain the infection. You also need to take a prescribed oral antifungal medication. Unaffected family members may benefit from using the shampoo as well.
Home remedies for ringworm
Home remedies like apple cider vinegar or tea tree have little to no benefit. Apple cider vinegar may cause open sores or inflammation. Tea tree oil has antifungal and antimicrobial properties but its effects aren’t well-known.
Your home may require treatment as well. The ringworm fungus can live on surfaces for months. Disinfectant sprays like Lysol® or bleach can remove the fungus. Wash clothes, sheets and towels in hot water and detergent to prevent ringworm from spreading.
Corticosteroid creams may help reduce inflammation, but they shouldn’t be used to treat ringworm. In fact, they may worsen the infection.
What cures ringworm?
Mild cases of ringworm clear up within a few weeks. More serious infections may require treatment for six to 12 weeks.
Some other things you can do to promote healing:
- Keep the affected area clean and dry.
- Apply antifungal lotions, creams or ointments for the entire treatment period.
- Avoid touching the area and wash your hands before touching other areas of your body.
Does ringworm go away by itself?
Although ringworm can go away by itself, it’s not common. While ringworm is present on your skin, you’re still contagious to others.
How can I prevent ringworm?
Ringworm thrives in damp, warm areas. The fungus can live on towels, clothes, sheets and household surfaces for months. Preventing ringworm involves:
- 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, especially between your toes.
- Avoiding 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 they’re infected.
- Washing hands thoroughly after contact with animals.
A weak immune system or living in a damp, warm climate increases your risk of a fungal infection.
Outlook / Prognosis
Can ringworm come back?
Yes, ringworm can come back. Ringworm will go away if you treat it appropriately. Follow your healthcare provider’s treatment plan until the infection clears completely. If you stop treatment or treatment ends too soon, the infection can come back.
What are the complications of ringworm?
If you suspect you or your child has ringworm, don’t use anti-itch creams containing corticosteroids. These creams weaken your 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 your skin, making it even harder to treat.
Scalp ringworm can lead to a painful inflammation called kerion. With kerion, you may develop crusty, pus-filled sores, often with hair loss and scarring.
When should I call the doctor?
Call your healthcare provider if the ringworm infection:
- Appears on your scalp.
- Looks infected (redness and swelling).
- Occurs during pregnancy.
- Spreads to other areas of your body.
- Doesn’t improve after using over-the-counter antifungal medication as directed.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
You’re 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/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?
Frequently Asked Questions
Is ringworm an actual worm?
No, ringworm isn’t a worm. It’s a fungal infection that gets its name from its ring-like border.
How does ringworm affect pregnancy?
Ringworm fungus won’t affect your pregnancy. 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 pregnancy care provider can discuss potential risks and benefits with you.
Can you get ringworm from dogs or cats?
Yes, you can get ringworm from dogs, cats and other animals like cows, goats or horses. You can protect yourself by always washing your hands after playing with or petting animals. If your pet has ringworm, disinfect your pet’s bedding and take extra care to clean surfaces your pet has visited in your home.
How is ringworm different from eczema?
Eczema and many other skin conditions can resemble ringworm. Both ringworm and eczema cause itchy, red skin. Unlike ringworm, eczema isn’t contagious and doesn’t spread from one area to another on your body. Ringworm has a unique, ring-like appearance. Contact a healthcare provider for an appropriate diagnosis.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Ringworm can be unpleasant, but antifungal medications will help you get rid of the fungus that causes ringworm. The treatment may take 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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