Ringworm Overview

Tinea manus on hand. Fungus infection.
Tinea manus, a fungal infection. See more pictures of skin problems.
CMSP/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images

Ringworm sounds downright scary, conjuring images of creepy, crawly critters invading the skin. The good news is that ringworm is actually a misnomer because there are actually no worms involved. Ringworm is caused by dermatophyte, a fungus. The resulting fungal infection is also known as tinea [source: National Center for Infectious Diseases].

Ringworm can affect several areas of your body. In fact, the name of each specific type of ringworm is created by combining the word tinea with the Latin term for the infected area [source: Trevino, Cairns]. Common ringworm infections include:


  • Tinea corporis, which affects the general skin surfaces of your body. When you think of ringworm you're probably thinking of this type, with the typical round, scaly spots.
  • Tinea capitis, which affects the scalp. This condition is more common in kids and teens, and doesn't usually occur after puberty.
  • Tinea cruris, which affects the groin area. This condition is commonly known as jock itch.
  • Tinea manuum, which affects the hands, especially between fingers and on the palms.
  • Tinea unguium, which affects the fingernails and toenails. Sometimes this is called fungal nails.
  • Tinea pedis, which affects the feet. You probably have heard this condition referred to as athlete's foot [source: Stöppler].

If you suspect you have a ringworm infection, see a doctor. Generally, a doctor can diagnose ringworm infections by sight but also may use a special blue light, known as a Wood's lamp, to make a correct diagnosis. If you have ringworm, your skin often looks florescent under this light. Your doctor might even take a sample of the infection and look at it under a microscope [source: National Library Medicine].

Although a ringworm infection isn't usually serious, it can have complications. It can leave you open to secondary bacterial infections and other types of skin disorders. If you suspect that your ringworm has caused an infection or is spreading, seek help from a medical professional immediately [source: National Library Medicine].

If you've noticed some odd-looking areas on your skin and you want to know if they could be a ringworm infection, check out the list of ringworm symptoms on the next page.


Ringworm Symptoms

If you think you've been exposed to ringworm, there are some general symptoms to note. Ringworm infections can be itchy and most are red, scaly and cracked, or a combination of all three [source: National Center for Infectious Diseases]. Each specific condition also has its own symptoms.

Tinea corporis is ringworm that occurs in the general body areas - not specific sites like your hands, feet, or head - and will most likely be itchy, scaly and have very clear edges. It's usually red, and often the outside is redder than the middle, which may cause it to look like a ring. This type of ringworm may crack, blister and ooze [source: National Library Medicine].


Hair loss is a key symptom in tinea capitis, or ringworm on your scalp. Bald spots, scaly areas and blisters may appear. You may notice a dandruff-like crustiness on the scalp [source: Cleveland Clinic]. If afflicted with tinea cruris, or jock itch, the ringworm appears in the groin area but can also affect the thighs near the groin. This form of ringworm tends to be itchy and reddish-brown [source: MedicineNet].

Tinea manuum is ringworm on the hands that looks scaly, dry and abnormally red [source: Trevino, Cairns]. Tinea unguium is a ringworm infection that occurs in the nails. You nails can become discolored, thicker, brittle and can even crumble [source: New York State Department of Health].

With tinea pedis, athlete's foot tends to be especially prevalent between the toes. You may have itching, burning, redness, scaly spots, cracked skin and even blisters between your toes or on the bottoms of your feet. Along with these symptoms, ringworm on your feet can make them smell putrid [source: Cleveland Clinic].

With so many types of ringworm out there, it's helpful to know their causes.


Ringworm Causes

Although ringworm isn't life-threatening, it can make living quite uncomfortable. To prevent a ringworm infection, your first line of defense is to be aware of the factors that cause it. Dermatophyte fungi like to live and grow in warm, damp environments, and can be transferred by physical contact [source: Trevino, Cairns].

While going to the gym is good for your health in many ways, it does have its disadvantages. Yoga mats, gym mats, locker-rooms and shower floors can all harbor the ringworm fungus. Walking around on a dirty, contaminated floor can give you athlete's foot. Rolling around on an infected mat can spread ringworm to what ever parts of your body it comes in contact with [source: American Society for Dermatologic Surgery].


Damp and dirty clothes, particularly towels, provide the moist environment that the ringworm fungus loves. If you towel off with an infected towel, you're likely to spread the fungus all over you [source: National Library of Medicine].

Any grooming tool like combs or hairbrushes , or head accessory you wear like a hat, headband or wig can harbor the fungus. You can easily transfer ringworm to your scalp by using someone else's infected brush or your friend's stylish, yet contaminated, hat [source: Trevino, Cairns].

You know you can get it by sharing items, but what about from other people? Read on to find out how contagious ringworm is.


Is Ringworm Contagious?

Ringworm is a prevalent fungal infection but you might not know just how contagious it is.. It's spread by direct contact, either by touching the skin of someone who's infected, by touching the fur of an animal that's infected, or by touching an object that's contaminated with the fungus. The good news is that ringworm generally doesn't last very long and you should be able to get rid of it within about four weeks [source: National Library of Medicine]. However, just because you've had ringworm once doesn't mean you are immune. Being exposed to ringworm again can cause another infection [source: Virginia Department of Health].

Anyone can get ringworm, even people who are otherwise healthy. Those at the highest risk include children, who are more prone to ringworm of the scalp, and athletes, wrestlers in particular. It won't take long for your ringworm to appear, either. Body ringworm usually shows up within about four to 10 days of exposure and ringworm on the scalp in about 10 to 14 days [source: Directors of Health Promotion and Education].


Ringworm is contagious enough that it can spread from one area of your body to another. For example, if you have athlete's foot, it's recommend that you put your socks on first when you get dressed. Ringworm is so contagious that if you put your underwear on first, you run the risk of spreading the infection in your feet to your groin area [source: MedicineNet].

Since the fungus is so common and widespread, locally and globally, you can't avoid it. But if you do get ringworm, you have several options for treating it. Check out the next page to learn about treatments.


Ringworm Treatments

If you do contract ringworm, you have several options for treatment. First, to be certain that the infection is actually ringworm and not something else, you should check with your doctor for a confirmed diagnosis.

Although ringworm can affect different areas of the body, some of the treatments are similar because it's all the same type of fungus. Your treatment options include:


  • Wearing natural fibers. With jock itch, try wearing loose, cotton clothing, and with athlete's foot, wear socks made from natural fibers like cotton.
  • Washing and drying yourself thoroughly so that your skin is clean and dry. With athlete's foot, make sure that after you wash your feet, you dry them completely, including in-between your toes, before you apply any antifungal medication [source: Cleveland Clinic].
  • Using an over-the-counter antifungal medication, available in creams, lotions and powders. If your infection doesn't clear up, your doctor may give you a prescription antifungal cream.
  • Taking an oral antifungal medication. You will need a prescription from your doctor for this kind of treatment. If your ringworm infection spawns a bacterial infection, you also may need an antibiotic [source: National Library Medicine].

Ringworm of the scalp, (tinea capitis), is treated differently than other types of ringworm. If you think you have tinea capitis, don't hesitate to visit your doctor. You may be prescribed an oral medication, a prescription shampoo and/or an over-the-counter shampoo containing selenium sulfide [source: Cleveland Clinic].

Because ringworm is so common, it makes identifying and treating your condition fairly quick and easy. If you follow your treatment plan, you're likely to banish this itchy fungus and keep it from worming its way back into your life. For more information, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Skin of Color." (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/general_skin.html
  • American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. "Tight Abs, Toned Muscles -- and Skin Infections?" (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.asds.net/Tightabstonedmuscles-andskininfections.aspx
  • Cleveland Clinic. "Athletes Foot, Jock Itch and Ringworm." (Accessed 8/6/09) http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/ringworm/hic_athletes_foot_jock_itch_and_ringworm.aspx
  • Directors of Health Promotion and Education. "Ringworm." (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.dhpe.org/infect/ringworm.html
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  • MedicineNet. "Ringworm Pictures Slideshow: A Collection of Photos." (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.medicinenet.com/ringworm_pictures_slideshow/article.htm#
  • http://www.medicinenet.com/ringworm/article.htm
  • National Center for Infectious Diseases. "Dermatophytes (Ringworm)." (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/dfbmd/disease_listing/dermatophytes_gi.html
  • National Center for Infectious Diseases. "Ringworm and Animals." (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/ringworm.htm
  • National Library of Medicine. "Tinea (ringworm)." (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001439.htm
  • New York State Department of Health. "Ringworm." (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.health.state.ny.us/diseases/communicable/ringworm/fact_sheet.htm
  • Skin Care Physicians. "What Causes Hair Loss?" (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.skincarephysicians.com/agingskinnet/root_of_hair_loss.html
  • Stöppler, Melissa Conrad, MD and Shiel, Jr., William C., MD, FACP, FACR. "Catching Ringworm from Pets." MedicineNet. (Accessed 8/6/09) http://www.medicinenet.com/ringworm/article.htm
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