Ringworm is the common name for a fungal infection that can affect the skin. Learn how to identify ringworm infections, how to treat them, and (most important!) how to prevent them.
Ringworm is a condition whose hallmark is an itchy, red, circular rash that looks as though worms are underneath the skin. But don’t let the name fool you — ringworm has nothing to do with worms. It’s caused by an opportunistic fungus called tinea, which can colonize almost any area of skin, causing small red spots that grow into ring-shaped or scaly patches that may blister and ooze.
Ringworm is extremely contagious and spreads easily from one person to another. You can also catch ringworm from contaminated objects, such as towels, combs, shoes, and other personal items; you can pick it up from a public pool and shared locker rooms and showers; or you can get it from contact with an infected pet (especially cats) or even a farm animal.
Although it’s uncomfortable and unsightly, the good news is that ringworm usually doesn’t lead to serious complications unless the rash becomes infected with a virus or a bacterium. Most ringworm infections respond quickly to treatment with over-the-counter remedies or — in more severe cases — prescription medications.
Ringworm Risk Factors
Although ringworm can develop anywhere on the skin, it’s most likely to affect warm, dark, and moist areas. It thrives on the toes, in the groin, and under the breasts. Heredity plays a role — some families may be more susceptible to ringworm infections than others. In addition, overweight and obese people can develop ringworm infections in deep skin folds.
Risk factors for ringworm include:
- Exposure to infected persons and animals
- Frequent use of public pools, showers, locker rooms, or hot tubs
- Excessive perspiration
- Participation in contact sports
- Wearing tight clothing
- Living in a hot, humid climate
- Living in crowded conditions
Types of Ringworm Infections
The most common types of ringworm include:
- Athlete’s foot (ringworm of the foot). Rare in children but common in adults, athlete’s foot causes soft, white, peeling skin between the toes and may spread to the toenails.
- Jock itch (ringworm of the groin). Although most common in physically active men, it can also affect women, especially if they wear tight underwear.
- Ringworm of the body. This usually affects the arms, legs, or chest and is the ringworm infection that’s most likely to cause the classic ring-shaped patches.
- Ringworm of the scalp. Most common in children, it causes itchy red lesions, boggy and oozing areas calledkerions, and patchy hair loss.
- Barber’s itch (ringworm of the beard). Common in adult males, it causes crusted skin andkerions on the face and neck.
Home Treatments for Ringworm Infections
Athlete’s foot, jock itch, and ringworm of the body usually respond within a week or two to treatment with over-the-counter antifungal lotions, creams, or ointments. These include:
- Terbinafine (Lamisil)
- Miconazole (Micatin)
- Clotrimazole(Lotrimin, Mycelex)
- Undecylenicacid (Desenex)
Ringworm of the scalp or beard and athlete’s foot that has spread to the toenails are difficult to treat with home remedies and should be evaluated by a doctor or dermatologist.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any ringworm infection that persists for more than two weeks. Seek prompt medical attention if a ringworm infection is accompanied by signs and symptoms of viral or bacterial infection, such as excessive redness, swelling, drainage, or fever, or if your immune function is compromised by immunosuppressive drugs or a condition such as HIV/AIDS.
Medical Treatments for Ringworm Infections
Because other skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema) and psoriasis, can cause the same symptoms as ringworm, your doctor or dermatologist may take a small scraping of your skin and examine it under a microscope for the presence of fungi. If fungi are found, your doctor may recommend a prescription antifungal lotion, cream, or ointment, such as:
- Econazole(Spectazole here)
- Miconazole (Monistat-Derm)
- Terbinafine (Lamisil)
If you have a stubborn ringworm infection — especially one that affects the scalp, beard, or nails — your doctor may recommend a prescription oral medication, such as:
- Fluconazole (Diflucan)
- Ketoconazole (Nizoral)
- Terbinafine (Lamisil)
You may need to continue taking oral medications for two or three months. If you have ringworm of the scalp or beard, you may also need to apply an antifungal shampoo or cream to your scalp or face.
You can prevent ringworm by taking commonsense precautions: Don’t walk barefoot in public areas, share personal items, or wear restrictive clothing. Change your socks and underwear frequently, especially during damp weather. If your pet shows signs of ringworm — such as patchy fur loss — take it to a vet for evaluation and treatment.
If you do contract a ringworm infection, don’t get mad — get even. Appropriate treatment with antifungal medications usually eradicates an infection within a few weeks or months.