(Tinea Infection; Dermatophyte Infection)
Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin. Despite its name, it has nothing at all to do with worms. The fungal infection may appear on the skin, nails, hands, feet, or scalp.
Ringworm is caused by microscopic skin fungi that live on the outer layer of the skin. You can get ringworm from direct skin-to-skin contact with infected people or pets. It is also transmitted by sharing hats and personal hair grooming items, and through contact with locker room floors, shower stalls, seats, or clothing used by an infected person.
Ringworm is more common in children 12 years of age or younger.
Factors that may increase your risk of developing ringworm include:
- Contact with surfaces, clothing, or personal grooming items used by an infected person
- Skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or pet
- Spending time in nurseries, schools, daycare centers, or locker rooms
When ringworm appears on the skin, it makes circular, reddish patches with raised borders. Eventually, the patches grow larger, and the centers of the patches turn clear, giving a ring-like appearance.
Symptoms of ringworm on other parts of the body vary, for example:
—begins with small bumps on the head that grow larger and form a circular pattern
- Hair may become brittle and break, forming scaly, hairless patches.
- Hands, tinea manus—affects the palms and spaces between the fingers
- Feet, tinea pedis or athlete's foot—may cause scaling between the toes, or thickening and scaling on the heels or soles
- Nails, tinea unguium —causes fingernails and toenails to become yellow, thick, and crumbly
- Groin, tinea cruris or jock itch—causes a chafed, reddish, itchy, sometimes painful rash in the groin
- Body, tinea corporis—produces flat, scaly, round spots on the skin
- Face, tinea faciei—produces red, scaly patches on the face
Ringworm symptoms on the body usually appear 4-10 days after exposure. Scalp symptoms will appear in 10-14 days.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A skin examination will be done. Ringworm is often easily diagnosed by appearance. However, symptoms may be similar to other conditions. A sample of the affected area may be taken for testing.
Treatment can be oral (taken by mouth) or topical (applied to skin):
This type of treatment is used for ringworm of the skin or body. It includes antifungal creams and powders. It usually takes at least 2 weeks for the ringworm to clear. After ringworm clears, treatment is usually continued for at least 2 more weeks.
For ringworm involving the body, hands, or feet, nonprescription treatment is highly effective.
Some medications are more effective than others.
This type of treatment is used for ringworm of the nails and scalp. Early treatment for scalp ringworm is important to prevent permanent hair loss. A culture or other test may be given to get an accurate diagnosis before beginning this kind of treatment. Prescription pills are given for:
- Scalp ringworm: 4-8 weeks, and occasionally longer
- Nail ringworm: 4-9 months, and occasionally longer
If you developed ringworm from your pet, your pet should be treated as well. Check with your pet's veterinarian for treatment procedures.
The following steps may prevent ringworm:
- Avoid contact with any infected person, animal, surface, or object.
- Do not share personal hair grooming items, clothing, or shoes.
- Wear sandals in locker room areas.
- Avoid scratching during infection. This will prevent ringworm from spreading to other areas.
- Wear clothing that minimizes sweating and moisture build-up.
- Wear breathable shoes or sandals.
- Keep moisture-prone areas of the body clean and dry.
American Academy of Dermatology
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Higgens EM, Fuller LC, Smith CH. Guidelines for the management of tinea capitis. Br J Dermatol. 2000;143(1):53-58.
Kakourou T, Uksal U, European Society for Pediatric Dermatology. Guidelines for the management of tinea capitis in children. Pediatr Dermatol. 2010;27(3):226-228.
Panackal AA, Halpern EF, Watson AJ. Cutaneous fungal infections in the United States: Analysis of the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS), 1995-2004. Int J Dermatol. 2009;48(7):704-712.
Tinea capitis. DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 3, 2014. Accessed January 12, 2015.
Tinea infections: athlete's foot, jock itch, and ringworm American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/tinea-infections.html. Updated April 2014. Accessed January 12, 2015.
Last reviewed February 2016 by David L Horn, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.