Ringworm is a common fungal infection that causes red patches to appear on your skin. It’s treated with medicines that kill fungi (antifungals).
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.
There are several types of ringworm – some of the most common are listed here.
Ringworm of the body
Ringworm of the nail
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.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.
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:
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.
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.
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.
There are a number of things you can do yourself to help get rid of ringworm and stop it spreading to other people.
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.
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.
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.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
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.