Do you have a rash that’s in the shape of a circular ring? If so, you may be experiencing ringworm, or tinea, a very common infection — especially in children — that spreads very easily. But don’t worry! Ring worm sounds scarier than it is… and there’s no worms involved, we swear! But how did you get this infection, and what can you do about it? We’ll break it down for you.
What the heck is ringworm?
Ringworm is a fungal infection, just like athlete’s foot or jock itch. In fact, those two conditions are technically types of ringworm infections!
Basically, ringworm is caused by several species of fungi called dermatophytes. These fungi attack different parts of the body, especially our skin and nails. The resulting condition is called tinea corporis. There are more than ten different types, and we’ve listed the most common ones below.
Tinea capitis affects your scalp.
Tinea cruris, also known as “jock itch,” affects the groin area.
Tinea pedis is the scientific name for foot ringworm, what is commonly referred to as athlete’s foot.
Tinea versicolor is when yeast that lives in your skin grows out of control.
Tinea faciei affects the skin of the face.
Tinea manus is ringworm of the hands, and it’s a pretty rare form that usually only affects one hand.
Tinea nigra consists of a brown or black macula (meaning a flat spot) on the palm, but no inflammation.
Tinea barbae is an infection in the beard and eyebrows that can look like inflamed pustules.
Tinea unguium affects fingernails and toenails.
Ringworm often appears as red, raised itchy patches with defined edges and a flat, scaly area. Sometimes, the patches have lighter skin in the center. Or, there might be red bumps inside. If the infection is in the scalp or beard, you may see bald patches. If the fungi attack nails, the nails may get thicker, discolored, and start to crumble.
Ringworm gets its name from the circular, often irregular edge of the rash, which may resemble the path of a worm. Sometimes, people develop several overlapping rings on their skin.
So, what causes ringworm, exactly?
Not worms! Basically, dermatophytes — those species of fungi we mentioned — cause the destruction of your body’s keratin, which is a protein that makes up your hair and nails. This destruction then causes an inflammatory immune response in your body. Frequently, obesity and diabetes are predisposing factors for ringworm.
Ringworm is very contagious. It can be spread skin-to-skin by people who don’t show symptoms for weeks. It can be spread during contact sports, such as wrestling, and it can also be spread by touching or grooming animals, since pets can be carriers.
Contaminated personal items are also suspect, as towels, bedding, brushes, and clothing can pass the fungi along. In some cases, people can also get ringworm from infected soil. Also, it can reinfect you from anything you wore when you had the infection, such as through shoes you wore when you had athlete’s foot.
Okay, I’ve definitely got ringworm. Should I see a doctor?
Over-the-counter antifungal agents should be your first line of defense. Try a a clotrimazole cream or powders. But if you’re in extreme pain, or finding that drugstore options aren’t doing the trick, you probably want to book an appointment with a medical professional soon. If your ringworm is severe, or your health is compromised, you may need prescription-strength antifungal creams or oral antifungal medications.
If you develop a fever, see your ringworm swelling, getting redder, or getting warmer, you should visit your doctor immediately. Your doctor can determine what kind of tinea you have, and make sure you get the right topical or oral anti-fungal treatment.
Ringworm is rarely dangerous, but if you have a weakened immune system as a result of a disease or other condition, your body may have trouble getting rid of it on its own. Ringworm can also grow and spread to other parts of your body. Plus, while you have ringworm, you’re more susceptible to other bacterial infections and skin disorders, too.
This dog may look sweet and cute, but he’s recovering from ringworm and could easily spread the infection to humans or other animals.
Is it possible to prevent ringworm?
While we hate to admit it, preventing ringworm is tough… mainly because it’s so common and so contagious.
The best way to keep it away from you is to practice good hygiene:
Keep your room and personal areas clean
Wash your personal items regularly!
Don’t share those personal items with anyone else.
Stay cool and dry.
If possible, avoid excessive sweating.
Avoid wearing tight or restrictive clothing.
All of these things can make it easier for fungi to access your skin and/or multiply in your system. Lastly, avoid infected people and animals as best you can. It’s a pretty distinctive infection, so you may be able to see it on other people, and on animals you can keep an eye out for a bald patch of skin. That said, visual assessment isn’t always reliable, since contagious people don’t necessarily show symptoms yet.
Overall, we want to assure you that ringworm sounds worse than it is. Just make sure to treat it ASAP and take precautions to make sure it doesn’t come back!
Dr. Betty Yan, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.