Ringworm (Tinea)

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is ringworm?

Ringworm is a fungal infection affecting the skin and nails. Despite its name, there is no worm involved. The name probably came about due to the infected skin’s appearance. It causes an itchy rash that oftentimes has a squiggly red ring surrounding it. The ring is usually raised and scaly, resembling a worm. Tinea and dermatophytosis are other names for ringworm because the fungi that cause tinea/ringworm are known as dermatophytes.

The term ‘ringworm’ typically refers to a tinea skin infection on the body, arms or legs. However, tinea can affect several different areas of the skin. The tinea name varies depending on the site of infection:

  • Beard (tinea barbae)

  • Body (tinea corporis)

  • Feet (tinea pedis or athlete’s foot)

  • Groin (tinea cruris or jock itch)

  • Hands (tinea manuum)

  • Head or scalp (tinea capitis)

  • Nails (tinea unguium or onychomycosis)

Ringworm is common and anyone can get it. The fungus thrives in warm, damp environments, such as public showers and locker rooms. It also prefers warm, moist skin, such as the groin or sweaty feet. It is contagious as well, and can spread through close contact, such as in sports.

Treatment is necessary to clear the infection and stop it from spreading to others. Antifungal medicines, creams and shampoos will eliminate the fungus. Doctors may also prescribe oral or topical medicines to relieve itching.

See your doctor for a skin rash resembling ringworm. You should also make an appointment for any rash that doesn’t show signs of improvement within two weeks with home treatment. 

What are the symptoms of ringworm?

Ringworm can look different depending on the site it infects. Ringworm symptoms typically develop within two weeks of coming in contact with the fungus.

Common symptoms of body ringworm

When ringworm affects the skin on the body, it causes an itchy, red rash that occurs in rings. The rings usually have a squiggly, raised, scaly rim around them. This is the classic appearance of ringworm. 

Common symptoms of beard ringworm

Ringworm of the beard causes the typical raised circular rash. But it can also infect the hair follicles and cause pus-filled bumps. Sometimes, the infection goes deeper and leads to a kerion—an inflamed patch that can cause scarring and whisker loss. This form of ringworm is rare, with bacterial infections being much more common.

Common symptoms of foot ringworm (athlete’s foot)

Athlete’s foot is a common type of tinea infection. It causes a dry, scaly, red rash that usually starts between the toes. The rash can grow to affect the whole foot. The affected areas may also itch, burn or sting.

Common symptoms of groin ringworm (jock itch)

Jock itch is a common infection and most men have experienced it at some point. It involves the skin of the genitals, inner thighs, and buttocks. It causes an itchy, red rash on infected areas. Sometimes, the rash has the classic ring shape. Women can also develop jock itch.

Common symptoms of hand ringworm

Ringworm can affect both sides of the hands. On the back of the hand, it usually has the classic ringed appearance. However, ringworm on the palms tends to look more like athlete’s foot with dry, scaly patches that itch. Having ringworm on the hands makes it very easy to spread and share the infection.

Common symptoms of head or scalp ringworm

Ringworm on the scalp can involve both the skin and the hair shafts. It causes itchy, scaly, bald patches on the scalp. The patches may also ooze and crust. This type of ringworm most often affects toddlers and school-aged children.

Common symptoms of nail ringworm (onychomycosis)

Ringworm can infect both fingernails and toenails, but it is more common in toenails. It turns the nail yellowish or brownish. The nail can also look dull, thicken, and even begin to separate from the nail bed.

See your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms. Several types of skin infections can cause similar symptoms. It may be necessary to see a dermatologist for a diagnosis.

What causes ringworm?

Ringworm is a fungal infection. The three main types of dermatophyte species responsible for the infection are from the Epidermophyton, Microsporum and Trichophyton genera. These fungi live well in areas that are warm and humid and they spread easily. They can pass from human to human, animals to humans, and from infected objects, surfaces and soil to humans.

What are the risk factors for ringworm?

Anyone can get ringworm, but a number of factors increase the risk of developing it. You are more likely to get ringworm if you have risk factors including:

  • Living in a warm, humid climate or tropical area

  • Participating in sports with skin-to-skin contact, such as wrestling or football

  • Sharing objects, such as towels, razors, clothing, hats, brushes, bedding, or sports gear, with an infected person

  • Sweating heavily on the body or feet

  • Using public showers and locker rooms or living in close quarters with others

  • Wearing tight shoes, underwear or clothing

Having diabetes, a weakened immune system, or being obese also increase the chances of getting ringworm. 

Reducing your risk of ringworm

You may be able to lower your risk of ringworm by addressing risk factors. This includes:

  • Avoiding infected people, objects and animals and not sharing personal items or sports gear

  • Changing socks and underwear often when they become damp

  • Keeping your skin clean, cool and dry and washing your hands

  • Showering immediately after sports or activities with skin-to-skin contact and cleaning your gear

  • Using shower shoes, flip flops, or other foot protection in public showers and spaces

  • Wearing loose-fitting clothing and shoes that allow air circulation

It is often difficult to prevent ringworm because it is very common and very contagious. If you have risk factors for ringworm, see your doctor if you suspect a problem.

How is ringworm treated?

Because it is a fungal infection, ringworm treatment requires antifungal medicines. Most skin infections, athlete’s foot, and jock itch will respond to over-the-counter (OTC) antifungals. They are available as creams, lotions, powders and sprays. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you need help choosing a product. See your doctor if the infection does not clear within two weeks.    

Other forms of ringworm can be more difficult to treat and require prescription medicines. Skin infections involving large areas may need an oral antifungal to clear. Antifungal shampoos along with oral antifungal medicine are necessary for head or scalp ringworm treatment. Beard ringworm treatment requires oral antifungals and sometimes a corticosteroid to reduce scarring. Finally, several weeks of oral antifungals are necessary to treat nail ringworm. This form can be particularly stubborn. It can take up to a year for a new, healthy-looking nail to grow.

What are the potential complications of ringworm?

Most cases of ringworm clear with proper antifungal treatment. But it can take time, especially with hand and nail infections. Ringworm can also be more severe and more difficult to treat when the immune system is not working the way it should. 

Follow your doctor’s instructions for treating ringworm. Typically, the scaliness clears before the redness. Let your doctor know if your symptoms get worse or do not improve.

Was this helpful?
  1. Athlete’s Foot. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/athletes-foot/symptoms-causes/syc-20353841 
  2. Beard Ringworm (Tinea Barbae). Merck Manual Consumer Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/skin-disorders/fungal-skin-infections/beard-ringworm-tinea-barbae 
  3. Jock Itch. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/jock-itch/symptoms-causes/syc-20353807 
  4. Noble SL, Forbes RC, Stamm PL. Diagnosis and management of common tinea infections. Am Fam Physician. 1998 Jul 1;58(1):163-174.
  5. Overview of Dermatophytoses. Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic-disorders/fungal-skin-infections/overview-of-dermatophytoses 
  6. Ringworm. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/contagious-skin-diseases/ringworm 
  7. Ringworm. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/ringworm/definition.html 
  8. Ringworm (Body). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ringworm-body/symptoms-causes/syc-20353780 
  9. Ringworm (Scalp). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ringworm-scalp/symptoms-causes/syc-20354918 

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Aug 24
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