While the infection is caused by a mold-like parasite that lives on the dead tissues of your skin, hair, or scalp, it is actually not a worm that is trapped under your skin causing the irritation.
Highly contagious, this infection can be spread through direct contact with a person, place, or surface that is affected by ringworm.
Those with compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible.
Think you may have contracted ringworm?
Below is a guide to the various types of ringworm, symptoms, and available over-the-counter and prescription treatment options to help you get rid of it as quickly as possible.
What is Ringworm?
Contrary to its name, ringworm has nothing to do with a worm being buried under your skin.
It’s a highly contagious fungal infection of the skin or scalp that manifests as red, itchy, scaly spots that form a circular rash on the body.
It is caused by mold-like fungi that live on the dead tissues of your skin, hair, or nails and can be spread by skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, animal, or object.
Ringworm tends to be more common in children than adults; in fact, it is the most common fungal skin infection in children worldwide.
Once you have come into contact with the fungi that cause ringworm, the incubation period can be anywhere between 2-14 days.
Symptoms of ringworm on the skin generally appear faster than symptoms on the scalp.
The following are common tell-tale signs you have the infection:
- Red, scaly, cracked skin anywhere on the body but particularly the buttocks, legs, arms, or stomach area
- Itchy skin
- A clear or scaly ring-shaped area
- Red bumps on the skin
- Slightly raised, expanding rings
- Discolored, thick, or brittle fingernails or toenails
Unfortunately, ringworm can affect any part of the body including your fingernails and toenails.
Symptoms will vary depending on which part of the body has become infected:
- Beard (tinea barbae): If you have facial hair, it may be easy to spot ringworm that affects your face. You may notice itchy, scaly, red spots on the cheeks, chin, beard, and upper neck. These spots might crust over or fill with pus. Hair loss is also a likely symptom of tinea barbae.
- Feet (tinea pedis): Also known as “athlete’s foot,” ringworm on the feet manifests as red, swollen, itchy skin between the toes, particularly the pinky toe. The skin may be scaly to touch, and in more severe cases, blisters may form on your feet.
- Groin (tinea cruris): Ringworm of the groin is also referred to as “jock itch” and presents itself as scaly, itchy, red spots that typically appear in the skin folds of your thigh.
- Scalp (tinea capitis): Red, itchy, scaly, circular bald spots on the scalp are tell-tale signs of ringworm. The bald spot may grow in size or more may emerge accompanied by hair loss or brittle hairs at the infected site. Ringworm on the scalp is typically more common in children than adults.
Over-the-counter Treatment Options
Most cases of ringworm on the skin (like athlete’s foot and jock itch) can be treated with over-the-counter medications.
Antifungal creams, lotions, or powders can be applied directly to the infected site for approximately 2-4 weeks to kill off the fungus spores that are living on the body.
Over-the-counter remedies include:
- Clotrimazole (Lotrimin, Mycelex): Clotrimazole is a topical fungal cream, spray, and solution that you put on your skin. The right treatment for you will depend on where the ringworm infection is on your body.
- Miconazole: Miconazole is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved antifungal medication that can be applied to the infected site to kill off harmful fungi living on the skin.
- Terbinafine (Lamisil): Terbinafine is available as a cream, gel, or spray and treats ringworm, athlete’s foot, jock itch, and pityriasis versicolor. For athlete’s foot, you can use terbinafine in a liquid form.
Always read the label and use it only as directed.
Contact your healthcare provider if the infection doesn’t go away or continues to spread.
Prescription Treatment Options
For ringworm of the scalp and more severe cases of ringworm, prescription medications may be necessary.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe you antifungal medications in the form of oral medicines.
These medications are taken anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
These treatments include:
- Fluconazole (Diflucan): This antifungal medication is available in oral form and is effective in treating cases of ringworm.
- Griseofulvin (Grifulvin V, Gris-PEG): Another antifungal treatment for ringworm, athlete’s foot, and jock itch is griseofulvin. In powder form, this medication can be applied directly to the infected area(s).
- Itraconazole (Onmel, Sporanox): Itraconazole is a broad-spectrum antifungal agent that is used to treat cases of ringworm.
- Terbinafine: As well as being available as a cream, gel, or spray, terbinafine comes in tablet form by prescription for more serious cases of ringworm.
In addition to over-the-counter and prescription medications for treating ringworm, there are some at-home care routines and things you can do to help you treat your infection.
Don’t cover it
When cleaning the area with ringworm, you should wash the affected area and dry it with a clean towel before applying any topical ointments.
Use a separate clean towel to dry other parts of your body to reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
Always wash your towels in hot, sudsy water after every use.
Don’t cover the infected site so the infection can dry out.
You want to make sure that the area has no moisture so if you are working out, be sure to shower immediately after and dry yourself off thoroughly.
If you have athlete’s foot, it is strongly suggested that you wear open-toed shoes that allow your feet to breathe and stay dry.
Washing bedding every day
Ringworm can live on fabrics and surfaces so it is essential that you wash and disinfect everything you come into contact with regularly.
This includes bedding. Wash all bedding consistently in hot sudsy water to stop the infection from spreading to other parts of the body or to anyone who may be sharing the bed with you.
Be sure to also wash your towels and clothing as well.
Keep skin dry
The fungus that causes ringworm thrives in warm, moist areas.
You want to make sure you keep the infected site clean and dry.
Avoid wearing heavy clothing including socks and shoes in hot, humid environments that may cause you to sweat.
When to See a Medical Professional
In some more mild cases of ringworm, the infection may go away on its own without medical treatment as long as you’re implementing proper self-care routines.
However, this typically takes longer and is only really suitable for milder cases that appear on the skin.
Ringworm of the scalp and more severe cases will require a visit to a medical professional who can prescribe oral antifungal medications.
If you are treating ringworm with over-the-counter medicine and symptoms persist or get worse, you should speak with a healthcare provider.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Ringworm: 12 Tips For Getting The Best Results From Treatment. (2016).
254 - Dermatophytes and Other Superficial Fungi. (2012).