Ringworm in Humans: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/23/2020

Ringworm, or tinea, is a type of fungal infection that affects the skin. It causes a ring-shaped, red rash to develop on your body. The rash caused by ringworm can often be itchy, scaly and uncomfortable, with a distinct appearance that sets it apart from other skin rashes. 

Medically, ringworm is usually referred to as “tinea” or “dermatophytosis.” It’s a very common fungal infection that can affect anyone, although certain people may have an elevated risk of developing ringworm based on their health and lifestyle.

Ringworm can affect many parts of the body. When it affects some areas, it’s often referred to by a different name. For example, ringworm that affects the feet is referred to as athlete’s foot, while ringworm that affects the groin and buttocks is often called jock itch.

Most of the time, the term “ringworm” is used to refer to the tinea fungal rash that develops on your arms, legs or other parts on your body. 

Ringworm can be irritating, especially when it occurs more than once. However, it’s a relatively easily treatable infection. Most cases of ringworm can be treated using over-the-counter topical treatments. For severe or recurring cases, prescription medications are available. 

Below, we’ve listed and explained the symptoms you may experience if you have ringworm, as well as the most common causes of ringworm and risk factors you should be aware of. 

We’ve also explained the treatment options that are available if you have ringworm, as well as the steps that you can take to prevent ringworm from coming back after treatment.

What Is Ringworm?

The term “ringworm” is used to refer to a family of fungal infections that can affect the skin. The infection can have different names depending on where the symptoms occur.

Despite its name, ringworm isn’t caused by any type of worm. Instead, its name is a result of its appearance. If you catch ringworm, you’ll typically notice a ring-shaped rash developing on your skin, often with a distinct red, raised border.

Research shows that approximately 40 different fungus species can cause ringworm. Many of these fungi can grow in both natural and manmade environments, such as damp spaces like as bathrooms and other shared facilities. 

As a result of this, ringworm is very common. According to some research, the estimated risk of acquiring some form of tinea infection in your lifetime is between 10 percent and 20 percent, making it second only to acne as the most common skin disease in the United States.

Symptoms of Ringworm

Because ringworm can affect many parts of the body, the precise symptoms can vary based on the area affected. Most of the time, ringworm cause the following symptoms:

  • A red, ring-shaped rash that feels scaly and cracked. Areas of skin affected by the rash often have a distinct raised, red-colored border.

  • Itching. Areas of the body affected by ringworm often itch. Some types of ringworm can cause a stinging or burning sensation, depending on the severity of the infection and the areas affected. 

A ringworm infection often starts by affecting a small area of skin, which may feel raised, pimply and inflamed. Over time, the rash takes on its distinctive ring-shaped appearance. 

When ringworm develops in certain areas of the body, its symptoms can differ. For example, a form of ringworm that affects the scalp known as tinea capitis may cause one or several areas of hair loss in addition to a red, itchy rash.

Similarly, ringworm that affects the feet (known as athlete’s foot) can cause symptoms such as swelling and peeling of skin between the toes and on the sole and heel of the feet.

Most of the time, the symptoms of ringworm develop gradually between four and 14 days after you come into contact with a source of the fungus. 

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What Causes Ringworm?

Ringworm is caused by the growth of a specific type of fungi, called dermatophytes, that live on the dead tissue of your skin, hair and nails. Dermatophytes survive and spread by attaching to keratin, a type of protein that’s found in the outer layer of your skin.

Most people catch ringworm in one of three ways:

  • From other people. Ringworm is a common infection, making it easy for the fungus to spread via direct contact with other people or shared objects, such as towels, clothing, shoes or grooming items.

  • From animals. Ringworm is quite a common infection in animals, particularly puppies and kittens. Other animals, including several common farm animals, can also spread ringworm infections to people.

  • From surfaces. Ringworm fungi can survive in damp areas such as communal shower areas, communal baths and locker rooms. The fungi that cause ringworm can also be found in soil.

Risk Factors for Ringworm

Anyone can catch ringworm, although certain activities and health-related issues may increase your risk compared to others. You may have a higher risk of developing a ringworm infection if you:

  • Have a weakened immune system. If you have a weak immune system, whether due to an immune system disorder or use of certain medication, you may be particularly at risk of catching ringworm. You may also face difficulties treating ringworm infections.

  • Are obese. Ringworm and other fungal infections often develop in warm, moist places, particularly in the folds of the skin. If you are overweight or obese and have deep skin folds, you may have a higher risk of getting ringworm or other fungal infections.

  • Use public showers or locker rooms. Wet areas that receive a lot of foot traffic, such as public showers and locker rooms, are common locations for fungal infections such as ringworm to spread.

  • Exercise or play sports often. Working out or playing sports causes you to sweat — a factor that’s linked to the growth of fungus. Your risk is especially high if you take part in combat sports, as ringworm can easily spread from one person to another.

  • Live in a region with a warm, humid climate. Warm, humid weather is ideal for fungi, including the fungi that cause ringworm infections, to grow. As such, if you live in a hot, humid area, you may have a higher risk of developing ringworm.

  • Work with animals. Ringworm is a common infection in many animals, including cats, dogs and other types of animals often kept as pets. If you work with animals, you may have a higher risk of being exposed to the fungi that cause ringworm.

Ringworm is especially common in children. If you have young children who take part in team or contact sports, it’s important to teach them how they can lower their risk of getting ringworm and other common skin infections. 

It’s also important to respond quickly to ringworm symptoms in children, as ringworm can often spread rapidly in schools and daycare centers. If your child displays symptoms of ringworm, it’s best to talk to their pediatrician as soon as possible. 

Treatments for Ringworm

Ringworm is commonly treated using antifungal medications. These work by either killing the fungal cells that cause ringworm directly or by making it more difficult for the fungus to grow in your skin. 

If you have ringworm, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider. You can also consult with a US-licensed healthcare provider online and, if appropriate, get medicine prescribed for you to pick up from your local pharmacy.

Over-the-Counter Antifungal Products

Most of the time, ringworm can be treated using non-prescription, over-the-counter medications such as topical creams, lotions and powders. These medications work locally to either kill fungi or prevent the fungi from growing and spreading. 

Several topical medications are available over the counter to treat ringworm, including but not limited to:

  • Clotrimazole

  • Ketoconazole

  • Miconazole

  • Terbinafine

You can purchase these medications from your local drugstore or pharmacy. These medications are typically sold as generics, meaning you can typically find them at affordable prices under an assortment of different brand names.

Over-the-counter antifungal creams, lotions and powders typically need to be applied for two to four weeks. 

If you decide to treat ringworm using an over-the-counter topical medication, make sure to use it for the entire treatment period. Don’t stop using the medication early, even if the symptoms start to go away. This is important to make sure that the ringworm infection doesn’t come back.

Prescription Medications

If you have persistent or severe ringworm that doesn’t go away after using an over-the-counter medication for two weeks, talk to your healthcare provider. You can also talk to a primary care provider online.

Depending on your symptoms, general health and the severity of the infection, your healthcare provider may prescribe a stronger topical antifungal medication. For severe ringworm, you may need to use an oral antifungal medication.

As with all medications, oral antifungal medications can cause side effects and may interact with other medications, so it’s important that you keep your healthcare provider informed about any other medications you take or health issues you currently have before using medications of this type. 

Ringworm on the Scalp (Tinea Capitis)

If you have ringworm that affects your scalp (tinea capitis), you’ll need to use prescription antifungal medication to clear the infection. Treating this form of ringworm usually takes one to three months. Your healthcare provider may prescribe one of the following medications:

  • Itraconazole

  • Fluconazole

  • Griseofulvin

  • Terbinafine

Self-Care and Lifestyle Changes

Your healthcare provider may recommend that you make certain changes to your lifestyle and habits in order to treat ringworm. To get the best results while using medication, try to:

  • Keep affected areas dry. Ringworm and other fungal infections thrive in wet areas of skin, making it important to keep affected skin dry. Make sure to clean affected skin as thoroughly as possible before applying topical antifungal medication.

    To avoid spreading the infection to other parts of your body, use a different towel to dry the affected skin. Try to wash your towels between each use to stop any fungus from continuing to grow on the fabric.

  • Wash your hands after touching the affected area. Ringworm can spread from one area of the body to another. To avoid spreading the infection, wash your hands using warm water and soap after touching areas of skin affected by ringworm.

  • If you have ringworm in several places, treat them all at once. This is important for preventing recurring infections. For example, if you have ringworm and jock itch, treat them both simultaneously to reduce your risk of long-term infection.

  • Disinfect any items that may be infected. Fungi can continue to grow on bedding and other items for a long time. While you’re treating ringworm, make sure to wash any fabric items that you used before to prevent the infection from coming back.

Tips for Preventing Ringworm

Ringworm is very contagious, meaning that not only is it easy to spread to other people, but it’s also easy to become reinfected after treating it successfully the first time. To lower your risk of experiencing recurring ringworm infections, try the following tips:

  • Keep your healthcare provider updated. If you still get ringworm symptoms even after treatment, talk to your healthcare provider. Ringworm can almost always be treated with the right combination of medication and self-care.

    Even if you don’t get recurring symptoms, make sure that you attend any appointments your healthcare provider schedules for after your treatment.

  • Make sure your partner treats any fungal infections. Ringworm can easily pass from person to person through close contact. Because of this, it’s important to make sure that your partner also receives treatment if they have a fungal infection.

  • Check your pets for signs of ringworm infection. If you think that your pet may have ringworm, take them to the vet as soon as possible. Ringworm can quickly spread from your pet to your skin through direct contact or surfaces that contain the fungus.

    This guide to ringworm in pets from the CDC lists common symptoms to look for in cats and dogs.

  • Take precautions when in a gym shower or locker room. These locations can harbor the fungi that cause ringworm, making it important that you’re careful to avoid infection if you use shared facilities.

    If you shower at a gym, spa or other communal area, wear a pair of flip-flops or sandals to protect yourself from athlete’s foot. Also, make sure to never share towels, personal grooming items or other personal care products with others.

  • Take steps to prevent other fungal infections from developing. There are numerous forms of ringworm, including athlete’s foot and jock itch. These spread similarly, with one type of infection often leading to others.

    Likewise, fungal infections in your nails can often spread to the skin. If you notice signs of any type of fungal infection — even if it’s different from your initial infection — follow up with your healthcare provider as soon as you can. 

In Conclusion

Ringworm can be a serious annoyance, but it is treatable. If you’ve noticed any of the symptoms of ringworm developing, it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider as soon as possible so that you can treat it using medication before it worsens.

In addition to using medication, it’s important to take steps to prevent ringworm from spreading to other parts of your body or to other people. You can reduce your risk of spreading ringworm by washing your hands and keeping the affected areas dry, clean and medicated.

Finally, be aware that ringworm can come back. If you notice recurring symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider about using a more effective treatment and use the prevention techniques listed above to reduce your risk of reinfection. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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