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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.