Fungal skin infections

Your health expert: Angana Nankani, Bupa GP
Content editor review by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, October 2023
Next review due October 2026

Fungal skin infections are common. They include athlete’s foot, ringworm, and fungal nail infections. Fungal skin infections are usually mild and easily treated. But sometimes they can be more severe or difficult to treat.

About fungal skin infections

Many different fungi and yeasts can cause infections of your skin, hair, and nails. Many fungal infections are contagious (can be spread from person to person). You can get a fungal infection in the following ways.

  • Through direct contact with an infected person or animal, including pets like dogs and cats.
  • Sharing items such as clothes, towels, hairbrushes or bedding with an infected person.
  • More rarely, from contact with soil.
  • If fungi that normally live harmlessly in or on your body grow out of control.

Fungal infections are more likely in areas of your body that are warm or moist. This means you’re more likely to get an infection if you:

  • live or work in a hot or humid environment
  • wear tight-fitting clothing or shoes that don’t let your feet ‘breathe’
  • tend to sweat lots
  • are obese with skin folds that rub against each other

You’re also more likely to develop a fungal skin infection if you:

  • have a weakened immune system due to illness like HIV, or to taking medicines like corticosteroids
  • have diabetes
  • have other conditions affecting your skin – for example, psoriasis or eczema

Having a weakened immune system may also mean the infection is more severe and harder to treat.

Symptoms of fungal skin infections

The symptoms of a fungal skin infection depend on the type of fungus that’s caused it, and where it is. You may notice changes in your skin, hair, or nails. The fungus can affect just one area or several areas of your body. Fungal infections can also spread from one area of your body to another.

Fungal skin infections

Fungal infections of your skin can change how it looks. You may get patches of skin that are:

  • red, discoloured or darker in colour
  • scaly and itchy or have a fine scale, like dry skin
  • sore, with pus-filled spots

Fungal nail infections

Fungal nail infections make your nail look abnormal and discoloured. Over time, they may cause pain and discomfort, which can interfere with standing, walking, or exercising.

Fungal scalp infections

Fungal infections of your scalp can cause your hair to become brittle and break off, leaving bald patches. It usually grows back after treatment.

You can find out more about different types of fungal infection and what they look like in our section on types of fungal skin infection.

Types of fungal skin infections

Here we describe some of the main types of fungal infection that can affect your skin and nails.

Athlete’s foot

This is the most common type of fungal infection. It affects around 7 in 10 people at some point in their lives. It’s caused by a fungus that grows in the skin between your toes and on the soles of your feet. It grows easily here because the area gets moist when your feet sweat.

Athlete’s foot can cause itchy, white, flaky patches on the skin between your toes. It may sometimes look red on white skin and cause darker patches on black or brown skin. It can cause painful cracks or fissures between your toes too. The sole of your foot can also become itchy, thickened, and scaly. You might also get blisters.

Athlete’s foot is more likely if you wear shoes that make your feet sweaty and you’re in a warm, humid environment. You can catch it by walking barefoot in shared shower or swimming areas. If you scratch the affected area, it can spread the infection to other parts of your body.

Athlete's foot

Nail infections

Fungal nail infections can affect any part of your nails. Toenails are much more likely to be affected than fingernails. The infection causes nails to discolour and become rough and crumbly. Your nail may also get thicker.

You usually get a fungal nail infection if you already have a fungal infection in another part of your body – for example, athlete’s foot. They’re also more common if you’re older or have another medical condition such as psoriasis or diabetes.

Fungal nail infection


Despite its name, ringworm is an infection with a fungus not a worm. It gets its name because it often causes a ring-shaped rash. Ringworm infections are common, especially in children and young adults. They can affect different parts of your body.

Ringworm on your body

This causes scaly, ring-shaped patches of skin on areas of your body including your arms, legs and trunk. These may get bigger, and you may have several overlapping patches. The affected areas may look red on white skin and appear as darker patches on black or brown skin.

You can catch ringworm by touching somebody who already has it or from contact with contaminated items such as clothing or bedding. You can also catch the infection from infected animals, including cats and dogs.

A photo of someone with ringworm

Ringworm in your groin

Ringworm in your groin causes an itchy rash in your groin and around the top of your legs. This may appear red on white skin or as darker areas on black or brown skin. Also called ‘jock itch’, it’s more common in men than women.

You usually get ringworm in your groin if you have fungal infections affecting other parts of your body – for example, your feet or nails. This then spreads to your groin.

Ringworm on your scalp

You can get this at any age, but it mostly affects children. It causes scaly, itchy patches on your scalp and circular patches of hair loss. You may also notice black dots on your scalp. These are broken hair stubs. In some people, the patches become inflamed, with pus-filled spots. You may develop a crusty, pus-filled area on your scalp called a ‘kerion’.

You can get ringworm on your scalp by direct contact with someone who has the infection. You can also get it by sharing contaminated items such as hairbrushes or clothing.

Scalp infection

Candida (yeast) skin infection

Candida is a yeast, which is a kind of fungus. It usually lives harmlessly inside your digestive system or vagina. But if conditions are right, Candida can multiply and start to cause symptoms. These yeast infections most often appear around your genitals (vagina or penis), in your mouth, or where you have folds of skin. A common name for Candida infections is ‘thrush’. In the vagina, it’s called vaginal thrush.

Candida skin infections most often affects the areas around your groin, underneath your breasts, and in your armpits. It makes the affected area sore and itchy. Your skin may become scaly and covered with a white–yellow substance. In skin folds, the skin is usually red and moist, and small pus-filled spots may appear.

Pityriasis versicolor

This is caused by a type of yeast called Malassezia, which usually lives harmlessly on your skin. It typically affects teenagers and young adults. Pityriasis versicolor causes patches of discoloured skin with a fine scale, that are sometimes itchy. It most commonly appears on your back, chest, or upper arms but it can affect other areas. Patches can be pink, brown, red, or almost white. If you have a light skin tone, you may notice the affected area doesn’t tan as much as the rest of your skin in summer. If you have darker skin, the affected area may look paler.

Pityriasis versicolor infection

Seeking help for fungal skin infections

You won’t usually need to see a GP if you have a fungal skin infection. You can usually treat it at home with over-the-counter medicines from a pharmacy. Your pharmacist will be able to give you advice. But you should see a GP if:

  • the infection is affecting a large area of skin
  • the infection is difficult to control or severe or over-the-counter treatments aren’t helping
  • you have a scalp infection
  • you’re not certain what’s causing your symptoms
  • you have a weakened immune system

Your GP will usually be able to diagnose a fungal infection by examining the affected area of skin, your nail, or your scalp. They will ask you about any other symptoms you’re getting, and any risk factors you may have. Sometimes they may need to take a scrape of skin or nail for testing to confirm the diagnosis.

Self-help for fungal skin infections

Fungal infections can spread to surrounding skin and other parts of your body. There are several things you can do to help stop this and ease your symptoms.

  • Wash the affected areas daily.
  • Dry your skin thoroughly after washing or bathing, especially in the folds of your skin and between your toes.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes made of cotton or a breathable material.
  • If you have a toenail infection, keep your feet dry and your nails short.
  • Wear breathable, well-fitting shoes and cotton socks (which you should change every day). You might want to replace old footwear that could be contaminated with fungus.
  • Wash your clothes, bedding, and towels often.
  • Try not to scratch affected skin, as you may spread the infection to other areas of your body.

If you have ringworm, athlete's foot, or a toenail infection, you should also take measures to avoid spreading the infection to other people. These include the following.

  • Don’t share personal items such as towels, clothing, brushes, or combs.
  • If you have athlete’s foot or a toenail infection, don’t go barefoot in communal areas like changing rooms or swimming pools.

Candida skin infections and Pityriasis versicolor don’t spread from person to person.

If you have a fungal infection, you can still go to work. If your child has a fungal infection, they can still go to school. But you should start treatment as soon as possible and follow the measures suggested in this section to help stop it spreading to others.

For more information, see our section on preventing fungal skin infections.

Fungal skin infections treatment

You’ll usually need treatment with antifungal medicines to get rid of a fungal skin infection. If you have an infected toenail, you don’t necessarily need treatment if it’s not bothering you.

Most fungal skin infections can be treated with topical antifungals (treatments you apply directly to your skin). Sometimes you may need antifungal tablets.

Topical antifungals

Topical antifungals for fungal skin infections come in various forms. These include creams, lotions, and shampoos. Most of these are available over the counter from a pharmacist, so you don’t need a prescription from your doctor. Examples include terbinafine (Lamisil), clotrimazole (Canesten), and miconazole (Daktacort and Daktarin).

You’ll usually need to continue treatment for one to two weeks after your symptoms have gone, to make sure the infection doesn’t come back. You may need to continue topical treatment for fungal nail infection for up to a year.

Your pharmacist will be able to advise the best treatment for you. Always read the leaflet that comes with your medicine to see how to apply it and for how long. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

Antifungal tablets

Your GP may prescribe antifungal tablets if your fungal infection covers a large area of skin or affects your nails or scalp. Your GP may also prescribe tablets if you’ve used a topical treatment and it hasn’t cleared the infection. Antifungal tablets include terbinafine (Lamisil), itraconazole, and griseofulvin.

You may need to take the tablets for several weeks to completely get rid of the infection. This can be up to 6 months if you have a fungal nail infection. It’s important to follow the instructions that come with your medicine or the instructions your GP gives you.

Fungal infections often come back after they have been treated, especially if you are prone to getting these types of infection.

Occasionally, your GP may refer you to a specialist doctor called a dermatologist for further assessment and treatment. They may do this if you have a very severe infection, if treatment hasn’t helped, or if the infection keeps coming back. They may also refer you to a specialist if you have a weakened immune system. This can make it harder to get rid of an infection.

Prevention of fungal skin infections

You can reduce your risk of getting a fungal skin infection by taking some simple precautions.

  • Dry your skin well after washing – especially in skin folds.
  • Don’t walk barefoot in communal areas such as showers, saunas, and swimming pools.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes made of cotton or a breathable material.
  • Don’t use other people’s towels, hats, hairbrushes, or combs.
  • If you’re prone to getting athlete’s foot, alternate your shoes every two or three days to give them time to dry out. Wear open-toed shoes in hot weather.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control.
  • If someone in your family has scalp ringworm, disinfect or replace bedding, hats, combs, and other items that may have been contaminated.
  • If you suspect that your pet has ringworm, take them to the vet for treatment.

Yes. Many fungal infections can spread from person to person. This can be through direct contact or from sharing contaminated items such as clothes, bedding, or hairbrushes. If you have a fungal infection, it’s important to take measures to help stop it from spreading. You can find out more in our section on self-help.

Most fungal skin infections can be treated with antifungal creams, lotions or shampoos that you apply directly to your skin. Some fungal infections need to be treated with antifungal tablets. Speak to your pharmacist for advice on the best treatment for you. For more information, see our section on treatment.

Fungal infections can be spread between people and through contact with animals, the soil, contaminated items or floors. Some fungal skin infections – for example, thrush – are caused when your body’s own yeast (a type of fungus) grows more than usual. You may be more likely to get a fungal infection if you wear tight clothing, are overweight or have certain medical conditions. For more information, see our about section.

Fungal skin infections won’t usually go away without treatment. If they aren’t treated, they could get worse and spread to other parts of your body. You’re also more likely to pass them to other people. A fungal nail infection doesn’t necessarily need treatment if it’s not causing you any problems. Read our section on treatment to find out more.

Improving your foot hygiene alone probably won’t cure your athlete’s foot. You usually need to use topical antifungals to get rid of it. But good foot hygiene can help prevent the spread of the infection to other parts of your body. It can also help to prevent athlete’s foot from coming back and help to stop the infection from spreading to others. For more information, see our sections on self-help and prevention.

There are several different types of fungal skin infection. Some of the main ones include athlete’s foot, ringworm of your body, scalp, or groin (jock itch), nail infection, and yeast infections. Having one fungal skin infection can increase your risk of getting another because they can spread to different areas.

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