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Ringworm

Key points

  • Ringworm is a fungal infection that can affect the skin on your body and scalp, and your nails.
  • The symptoms usually don’t appear until a few days after you have been infected.
  • The most likely symptom of ringworm is a red, scaly rash that may be itchy.
  • You can catch ringworm through contact with an infected person or animal, contaminated object, such as bedding, or, rarely, from fungus in soil.
  • You will probably be prescribed an antifungal cream to treat ringworm.

Example of ringworm of the body

An image showing ringworm of the body

Ringworm is a common fungal infection that causes red patches to appear on your skin. It’s treated with medicines that kill fungi (antifungals).

About ringworm

Ringworm is the term used for infections caused by a group of fungi called dermatophytes. Despite its name, the condition has nothing to do with worms but gets its name from the ring-like rash caused by the infection. The fungi can infect your skin, nails or hair. Ringworm is infectious and spreads through direct contact between infected people or animals, or contact with contaminated items such as towels.

Types of ringworm

There are several types of ringworm – some of the most common are listed here.

  • Ringworm of the body (Tinea corporis). This affects areas of your body such as your abdomen (tummy), legs or arms, and can be caught from domestic animals.
  • Ringworm of the scalp (Tinea capitis). This is far more common in children than adults.
  • Tinea cruris, also known as 'jock itch', ringworm of the groin. It’s more common in men than women and often affects athletes.
  • Tinea pedis, commonly known as athlete's foot, is ringworm of the foot.
  • The fungus that causes ringworm can also affect the nails causing a fungal nail infection (Tinea unguium). This affects toenails more often than fingernails.

An image showing a close-up of ringworm on the skin.

Ringworm of the body

An image showing a close-up of ringworm on the nail.

Ringworm of the nail

Symptoms of ringworm

The symptoms of ringworm don’t develop immediately after infection but usually take between four and 14 days to appear. How long it takes will vary depending on what part of your body is affected. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

Most ringworm infections cause a rash that is red or scaly and can be irritating and sometimes very itchy. However, symptoms vary depending on which part of your body is infected and the type of fungus causing it.

  • Body ringworm causes red patches that have scaly edges and grow from the centre. The middle of your rash may clear up over time, leaving a red ring or series of red rings. You may also develop blisters.
  • Scalp ringworm causes scaly patches of skin on your scalp. Your scalp can become inflamed and in the affected area your hair may fall out. Sometimes scalp ringworm can be more severe, causing a painful, oozing swelling called a kerion.
  • Groin ringworm causes a red or red-brown, itchy rash on your thighs, groin and surrounding area, although it doesn't usually affect the penis. Your rash will have an obvious edge and this may have pustules or papules (raised bumps).
  • Athlete's foot causes the skin between your toes to become moist and white, and it may crack.
  • Nail infection may cause your nails to change colour, turning them yellow or white. Your nail may thicken, become flaky and crumble away easily. The skin surrounding your nail may also thicken or become scaly.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.

Causes of ringworm

Ringworm is infectious so you may catch it from direct contact with an infected person. You can also catch it from an infected animal, and rarely, from traces of the fungus in soil. The fungus can survive for a long time in soil and on items such as combs, bedding and towels, so you can catch it if you come into contact with something that has been contaminated.

There are a number of things that can increase your risk of developing a fungal infection such as ringworm. These include:

  • being very old or young
  • having had a fungal skin infection before
  • having diabetes
  • being obese
  • using shared facilities, such as showers and gyms
  • having a weakened immune system, for example if you have HIV/AIDS, or if you're taking medicines that suppress the immune system

Moist skin encourages the growth of fungi, so you’re more likely to develop a fungal infection if you don’t dry your skin properly after washing or sweating. Infections can develop when skin is unable to 'breathe' and is covered by material that doesn't allow sweat to evaporate.

Diagnosis of ringworm

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. Occasionally, if your GP isn't sure what is causing your infection or wants to confirm that it’s ringworm, he or she may take a sample of the affected area to be analysed in a laboratory. This can help to determine if you have ringworm and the right type of treatment for you.

For a scalp infection your GP may collect scales and hair from the affected area. If you have an infection on your body, he or she may scrape some skin off the edge of the infected area using a scalpel or glass slide. If you have a nail infection, your GP may ask you to cut off a section of your nail.

Your GP may also take a sample if your infection is severe or if it’s not getting better with treatment.

If your GP suspects a fungal infection, he or she may start your treatment before your test results are back.

Treatment of ringworm

Ringworm is treated in different ways and your treatment will depend on what part of your body is affected and how severe your infection is. Usually your GP will be able to treat you, but if your infection is severe or keeps coming back, he or she may refer you to a dermatologist (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating skin conditions).

If you have scalp ringworm and your GP suspects that you have a kerion, he or she may refer you to a dermatologist.

Self-help

There are a number of things you can do yourself to help get rid of ringworm and stop it spreading to other people.

  • Wash the affected area every day and dry your skin carefully.
  • Wear loose, breathable clothing.
  • Wear well fitting shoes made of a breathable fabric.
  • Try not to expose your hands or feet to warm, damp conditions for long periods of time.
  • Keep your nails short.
  • Don't scratch any areas of your body infected with ringworm as this can spread the infection.
  • Wash your towels, bedding and clothes frequently.
  • Don't share items such as towels, combs, hats or hairbrushes.
  • Disinfect any items such as hats, combs and hairbrushes that may be contaminated with the fungus.

If you think you may have caught ringworm from your pet, take it to the vet for a check-up. If your pet is found to be infected, get it treated.

Medicines

Creams

Your GP will usually prescribe an antifungal cream to treat mild ringworm of the body. Examples of these include imidazole creams, for example miconazole, or terbinafine cream. You will need to use the cream regularly to clear up the infection, and for up to two weeks after the rash has faded to stop it from coming back. It can take six weeks for effective treatment. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, terbinafine cream may not be suitable so your GP may prescribe you an alternative.

You can also buy terbinafine cream and some imidazole creams at a pharmacy without a prescription from your GP. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

If your infection is very inflamed, your GP may prescribe you a steroid cream to calm the irritation, as well as an antifungal cream. These may be combined in the same cream, for example Daktacort.

Oral antifungal medicine

If your ringworm infection is severe or affecting large areas of your body, your GP may prescribe you antifungal medicines to take by mouth (orally). Oral medicines are also used for treating scalp ringworm because creams can't kill the fungus in the hair shaft. Examples of medicines you may be prescribed are terbinafine, itraconazole or griseofulvin.

Griseofulvin isn’t recommended if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. It can also be harmful to a developing fetus so it’s important for women to use effective contraception while taking griseofulvin and for a minimum of a month afterwards. The effectiveness of the contraceptive pill may be reduced so you will need to use extra contraception, such as a condom. Men should not father a child while taking griseofulvin or for at least six months afterwards. Always ask your GP for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.

Antifungal shampoos

If you have scalp ringworm, your GP may recommend that you use an antifungal shampoo as well as taking an antifungal medicine. Examples of antifungal shampoos include ketoconazole and selenium sulfide.

Medicated nail lacquer

If you have a fungal nail infection that doesn’t worry you, there is no need to treat it. However, if the infected nail is causing you discomfort or difficulty, for example walking is painful, or your GP thinks you could develop further infections, he or she will prescribe you a medicated nail lacquer, such as amorolfine, or oral antifungal tablets. You may need to use nail lacquers for up to a year.

 

Reviewed by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, September 2013.

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For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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