- Risk Factors
- Signs & Symptoms
What is ringworm?
The term ringworm or ringworms refers to fungal infections that are on the surface of the skin. The name is derived from the early belief that the infection was due to a worm, which it is not. Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin. Nevertheless, the name ringworm remains. Some of these fungi produce a rash of round scaly spots on the skin, but many do not. On the other hand, many rounds, red spots, or rashes on the skin are not due to a fungal infection.
A physical examination of the affected skin, evaluation of skin scrapings under the microscope, and culture tests can help healthcare professionals make the appropriate diagnosis and distinctions from other conditions. A proper diagnosis is best for successful treatment.
The medical term for ringworm is tinea. (Tinea is the Latin name for a growing worm.) Healthcare professionals add another word to indicate the part of the body where the fungus is located. Tinea capitis, for instance, refers to scalp ringworm, tinea corporis to fungus of the body, tinea pedis to fungus of the feet, and so on.
What are the different types of ringworm?
The different types of ringworm include the following:
- Tinea corporis: When fungus affects the skin of the body, it often produces the round spots of classic ringworm. The first stage of symptoms involves a red, scaly area of skin that may be slightly raised (plaque). This stage tends to worsen rapidly. The condition progresses to form the characteristic ring shape. Sometimes, these spots have an "active" outer border as they slowly grow and advance. Sometimes, scaling, crusting, raised areas, or even blister-like lesions can appear, particularly on the active border. It is important to distinguish the ringworm of the body from other skin conditions, such as nummular eczema. This condition, and others, may appear similar to ringworm, but they are not due to a fungal infection and require different treatment.
- Tinea cruris: Tinea of the groin ("jock itch") tends to have a reddish-brown color and extends from the folds of the groin down onto one or both thighs. Other conditions that can mimic tinea cruris include yeast infections, psoriasis, and intertrigo, a chafing rash that results from the skin rubbing against the skin.
- Tinea pedis: The athlete's foot may cause scaling and inflammation with itching and burning irritation in the toe webs, especially the one between the fourth and fifth toes. Another common form of tinea pedis produces a thickening or scaling of the skin on the heels and soles. This is sometimes referred to as the "moccasin distribution." Occasionally, tinea causes blisters between the toes or on the sole. Aside from the athlete's foot, tinea pedis is known as tinea of the foot or, more loosely, a fungal infection of the feet. Tinea pedis is an extremely common skin disorder. It is the most common and perhaps the most persistent of fungal (tinea) infections. It is rare before adolescence. It may occur in association with other fungal skin infections such as tinea cruris (jock itch).
- Tinea unguium: Finally, fungal infection can make the fingernails and, more often, the toenails yellow, thick, and crumbly. This is referred to as fungal nails or onychomycosis.
- Tinea faciei (faciale): ringworm on the face except in the area of the beard. On the face, ringworm is rarely ring-shaped. Characteristically, it causes red scaly patches with indistinct edges.
- Tinea manus: ringworm involving the hands, particularly the palms and the spaces between the fingers. It typically causes thickening (hyperkeratosis) of these areas, often on only one hand. Tinea manus is a common companion of tinea pedis (ringworm of the feet). It is also called tinea manuum.
What is the main cause of ringworm?
Although the world is full of yeasts, molds, and fungi, only a few cause skin diseases. These agents are called dermatophytes (which means "skin fungi"). An infection with these fungi is medically known as dermatophytosis. Skin fungi can only live on the dead layer of keratin protein on top of the skin. They rarely invade deeper into the body and cannot live on mucous membranes, such as those in the mouth or vagina.
Scientific names for the most common dermatophyte fungi that cause ringworm include Trichophyton rubrum, Trichophyton tonsurans, Trichophyton interdigitale, and/or Trichophyton mentagrophytes, Microsporum canis, and Epidermophyton floccosum.
What are the sources of skin fungi?
Some fungi live only on human skin, hair, or nails. Others live on animals and only sometimes are found on human skin. Still, others live in the soil. It is often difficult or impossible to identify the source of a particular person's skin fungus. The fungi may spread from person to person (anthropophilic), from animal to person (zoophilic), or from the soil to a person (geophilic).
Heat and moisture help fungi grow and thrive, which makes them more commonly found in skin folds such as those in the groin area or between the toes. This also accounts for their reputation as being caught in showers, locker rooms, and swimming pools. This reputation is exaggerated, though, since many people with "jock itch" or "athlete's foot" have not contracted the infection from locker rooms or athletic facilities.
What are risk factors for ringworm?
Ringworm occurs in people of all ages, but it is particularly common in children.
As described previously, it is possible to acquire ringworm from a variety of places and circumstances. The greatest risk factor is coming in contact with an affected individual. Warm, moist areas are favorable conditions for the growth of fungi, so areas such as communal showers and locker rooms are areas in which transmission is favorable. However, any contact with an infected person or a contaminated surface can cause ringworm infection.
What are signs and symptoms of ringworm?
The signs and symptoms of ringworm depend on the type, which may include the following:
- Tinea barbae: Ringworm of the bearded area of the face and neck, with swelling and marked crusting, is often accompanied by itching, sometimes causing the hair to break off. In the days when men went to the barber daily for a shave, tinea barbae was called barber's itch.
- Tinea capitis: Scalp ringworm commonly affects children, mostly in late childhood or adolescence. This condition may spread in schools. Tinea capitis appears as scalp scaling that is associated with bald spots (in contrast to seborrhea or dandruff, for instance, which do not cause hair loss). Occasionally, an erion (a pus-filled, raised swelling) may develop in severe cases of ringworm of the scalp.
Is ringworm contagious?
Ringworm is a contagious disease and can be passed through skin-to-skin contact or by sharing combs and brushes, other personal care items, or clothing. It is also possible to become infected with ringworm after coming in contact with the locker room or pool surfaces. The skin infection can also affect dogs and cats, and pets may transmit the infection to humans. It is common to have several areas of ringworm at once in different body areas.
Ringworm can spread in the following ways:
- Skin-to-skin contact with infected human skin or animals
- Ringworm can spread by sharing towels and clothes with the infected person
- Contact with contaminated objects or soil
What kinds of health care professionals diagnose and treat ringworm?
Ringworm is treated by primary-care specialists, including internists, pediatricians (for ringworm in a child), and family medicine specialists. Because it is a skin condition, many people also seek medical advice from a dermatologist for ringworm. In rare, complicated ringworm infections, an infectious-disease specialist may be consulted.
How do healthcare professionals diagnose ringworm?
Often, the diagnosis of ringworm is obvious from its location and appearance. Otherwise, skin scrapings for microscopic examination and a culture of the affected skin can establish the diagnosis of ringworm. If the diagnosis is unclear, a potassium hydroxide (KOH) preparation of a skin scraping can be reviewed under the microscope to confirm the diagnosis of a fungus.
If a fungus infection is present and the skin problem is misdiagnosed, inappropriate treatment might be prescribed that could actually worsen the infection.
What is the best treatment for ringworm?
Home remedies cannot cure ringworm. To cure ringworm, it is necessary to take antifungal medications.
Ringworm can be treated topically (with external applications) or systemically (for example, with oral medications):
- Topical treatment: When fungus affects the skin of the body or the groin, many antifungal creams can clear the condition in around two weeks. Examples of such preparations include those that contain clotrimazole (Cruex cream, Desenex cream, Lotrimin cream, lotion, and solution), miconazole (Monistat-Derm cream), ketoconazole (Nizoral cream), econazole (Spectazole), naftifine (Naftin), and terbinafine (Lamisil cream and solution). These treatments are effective for many cases of foot fungus as well. Many of these antifungal creams are available as over-the-counter preparations. It is usually necessary to use topical medications for at least two weeks. More recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the antifungal medication luliconazole (Luzu), the first topical azole antifungal agent with a one-week once-daily treatment regimen for the management of tinea cruris and tinea corporis in adults aged 18 years or older.
- Systemic treatment: Some fungal infections do not respond well to external applications. Examples include scalp fungus and fungus of the nails. To penetrate these areas and for particularly severe or extensive diseases, oral medications can be used.
For a long time, the only effective antifungal tablet was griseofulvin (Fulvicin, Grifulvin, and Gris-PEG). Now, other agents are available that are both safer and more effective. These include terbinafine, itraconazole (Sporanox), and fluconazole (Diflucan). Oral medications are usually given for a three-month course.
What is the prognosis (outlook) for ringworm?
Ringworm can be cured with appropriate treatment. Ringworm of the skin typically resolves after two to three weeks of treatment, while cases of ringworm of the scalp or nails may require treatment for a few months.
What are the complications of ringworm?
Complications of ringworm are rare and can include a secondary bacterial skin infection or a widespread fungal infection (extremely rare and more likely to occur in individuals with suppressed immune systems).
Is it possible to prevent ringworm?
Conventional wisdom holds that minimizing sweat and moisture can help prevent fungal infections. Common recommendations for ringworm prevention along these lines are for men to wear loose-fitting boxer shorts, for women to avoid pantyhose, and so forth. Whether these measures, some of which are quite difficult to implement, are worth all of the effort is open to question.
You can also take steps to prevent the spread of ringworm infections. Do not share clothing, towels, hairbrushes, combs, hair accessories, sports gear, or other personal-care items. Wearing sandals or shoes in gyms, locker rooms, and pools can help reduce your chances of contracting an athlete's foot. Be sure that your child also wears shoes in locker rooms and around pools. You should avoid touching pets that have signs of ringworm (typically bald spots). Wash hands after touching pets and be sure that a child washes his/her hands after touching pets.
If your pet has ringworm, wear gloves, and long sleeves when handling your pet, and vacuum often in areas of the home frequented by your pet. You can kill fungal spores by disinfecting surfaces and bedding by using a solution of diluted chlorine bleach, benzalkonium chloride, or strong detergents. A veterinarian can treat your pet so that the infection can be eradicated.
Skin Problems and Treatments Resources
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Shukla, Shweta. "Tinea Corporis." Medscape.com. Sept. 17, 2020. <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1091473-overview>.
Pal, Mahendra, and Sonal K. Patel. "Dermatophytosis: A Highly Infectious Global Fungal Disease of Major Public Health Concern." ACTA Scientific Microbiology 1.11 Nov. 2018: 14-16.
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Ringworm." Dec. 29, 2020. <http://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/ringworm/>.
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