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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, 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 infection can affect both humans and animals. The infection initially appears as discolored, often scaly patches on affected areas. These patches typically appear red on lighter skin or brown-gray on darker skin.

Ringworm may spread from an affected area to other parts of the body, such as the:

  • scalp
  • feet
  • hands
  • nails
  • groin
  • beard

Recognizing ringworm symptoms

Symptoms vary depending on where the infection occurs. With a skin infection, you may experience the following:

  • itchiness
  • 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

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.

Body

The term “ringworm” is most commonly used to refer to tinea corporis, or ringworm of the body. This form often appears as patches with the characteristic round ring shape on your torso or limbs.

Scalp

Ringworm of the scalp, or 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.

Beard

Ringworm of the beard, also called 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.

Hands

Ringworm of the hand, or 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.

Groin

Jock itch, known as 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.

This 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 anti-itch cream.

Feet

Athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis, is the common name for 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. Symptoms may include:

  • an itching, stinging, or burning sensation
  • blistering
  • peeling
  • a foul odor

Nails

Onychomycosis, also called tinea unguium, is a ringworm infection of the nails. It affects toenails more than fingernails, as footwear often provides a moist, warm environment that fungi prefer.

Affected nails may become thicker or discolored. They may even begin to crack or lift away from your nail bed.

Pictures of ringworm

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Causes of ringworm

About 40 different species of fungus can cause ringworm. They are typically of the TrichophytonMicrosporum, and Epidermophyton types.

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 soil.

The fungi 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 the fungi as well.
  • 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.

Ringworm risk factors

Anyone can get ringworm, but you may be more at risk if you:

  • 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

Getting a ringworm diagnosis

Your doctor will diagnose ringworm by 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.

Ringworm treatment

Your doctor may recommend both medications and lifestyle adjustments to treat ringworm.

Medications

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 typically be treated with topical medications, such as antifungal:

  • creams
  • ointments
  • gels
  • sprays

Some severe cases may be treated with oral medications.

Ringworm of the scalp or nails may require prescription-strength oral medications, such as griseofulvin (Gris-PEG) or terbinafine.

Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) medications and antifungal skin creams as well. These products may contain clotrimazole, miconazole, terbinafine, or other related ingredients.

Find antifungal treatments online.

Lifestyle adjustments

In addition to prescription and OTC medication, your doctor may recommend that you care for the infection at home by:

  • washing bedding and clothing daily to help disinfect your surroundings
  • drying your skin thoroughly after bathing
  • wearing loose clothing in affected areas
  • treating all affected areas, as not treating tinea pedis can lead to the recurrence of tinea cruris

Take an in-depth look at ringworm treatments here.

Ringworm home remedies

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 cotton balls soaked in apple cider vinegar over affected areas of skin three times a day to treat ringworm.
  • Coconut oil. People apply coconut oil 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. You can mix turmeric, a common spice, 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.

Ringworm essential oils

Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts from flowers, herbs, and other plant types.

There is no scientific data, only anecdotal evidence, to support the routine use of essential oils in treating antifungal infections like ringworm.

You may want to discuss essential oils with your doctor before use and should not use them to replace conventional treatments.

Some of the essentials oils people use to treat ringworm include:

These oils can be potent, so you will need to dilute them with a carrier oil, such as olive or coconut oil, before applying the mixture to your skin.

Mixing two or three oils together with a carrier oil may give you better results, but this is only anecdotal and not scientifically proven.

Ringworm stages

You won’t see ringworm right away when you first pick up the fungus. 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 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.

Because ringworm is so contagious, you’ll want to start treatment at the first signs of it. If you don’t, it may spread and grow.

Is ringworm contagious?

Anyone can develop ringworm. However, the infection is very common among children and people who own cats or dogs. Both cats and dogs can get 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 for an examination.

You may be more likely to develop dermatophytosis if you come in contact with fungi while your skin is soft and wet from prolonged water exposure (macerated) or while you have minor skin injuries or abrasions.

Using a public shower or public pool may also expose you to the infectious fungi.

If you’re often barefoot, you may develop ringworm on your feet. Those who often share items such as hairbrushes or unwashed clothing also have an increased risk of developing the infection.

Ringworm vs. eczema

Ringworm can closely resemble another condition called nummular eczema. Doctors also call nummular eczema discoid eczema or nummular dermatitis as well.

The two conditions are similar because they both cause round or coin-shaped lesions on your 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 a clearing (normal-appearing skin) in the center, while ringworm does.

Ringworm may also have pustules associated with it, while nummular eczema typically doesn’t.

Sometimes the two conditions look so much alike that the only way to tell the difference is to speak with 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 the differences between the two and how to treat them.

Ringworm vs. psoriasis

Psoriasis is another skin condition that can sometimes resemble ringworm. Plaque psoriasis is a disorder due to immune dysfunction that produces inflammatory plaques on your skin.

On lighter skin, plaque psoriasis appears as pink plaques with heavy white scales. On darker skin, it appears as purple patches with gray scales.

Small isolated plaques can sometimes look similar to ringworm. Both ringworm and psoriasis can cause discolored patches of skin as well as itching and scaling.

However, ringworm on your torso or limbs will usually have a circular appearance with a 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 your skin, and occur in distinct locations, like your lower back, elbows, and knees. Psoriasis lesions also don’t typically have a clearing in the middle.

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.

Ringworm complications

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, which is common in children
  • 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 life-long permanent hair loss. When considering these potential complications, it’s best to treat ringworm as quickly as possible.

Preventing ringworm

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

Ringworm during pregnancy

If you get ringworm during pregnancy, there are medications you can use to treat it that aren’t known to cause any problems to a baby.

Examples of these drugs, which are fine to use when applied topically, include:

  • ciclopirox (Loprox)
  • clotrimazole (Lotrimin)
  • naftifine (Naftin)
  • oxiconazole (Oxistat)
  • terbinafine

However, it’s always best to talk with your doctor before using any medications while pregnant.

Most medications can’t be properly studied in pregnant people 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.

Doctors don’t usually recommend taking oral medications to treat fungal infections during pregnancy. Some oral medications that have the potential to cause known, unwanted side effects include oral ketoconazole and oral miconazole.

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 should also talk with your doctor before using any medications if you are breastfeeding.

Ringworm from dogs

You can get ringworm from your dog. Dogs can pick up fungus spores from the environment, and the spores transfer to whatever the dog’s hair touches. Examples include:

  • bedding
  • carpeting
  • clothing
  • dog brushes
  • food bowls

Watch your dog regularly for signs of 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 the risk of infection whenever possible.

Ringworm from cats

According to the American Kennel Club, cats are more prone to getting ringworm than dogs. They can pass the condition on to humans as well.

Like ringworm in dogs, if you spot ringworm in cats, call your veterinarian. They can prescribe antifungal treatments.

You should also 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 way as you would any fungal infection. This includes topical antifungals.

Outlook

Skin medications may clear ringworm on your torso and limbs in 2 to 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.

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