Know the basics of ringworm

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published August 11, 2017

Key Takeaways

Despite many aliases—athlete’s foot, jock itch, barber’s itch—these conditions are all caused by one fungus, ringworm. Ringworn is a common condition, and in hot humid weather, the risks for developing it increase.

“On most areas of the skin, ringworm causes flat, ring-shaped patches to develop,” said Melissa Piliang, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH. “The patches have a raised, scaly border that snakes its way around the edge like a worm, which is probably how ringworm got its name.”

These intensely itchy spots grow slowly, and in people with lighter skin, tend to be red or pink. In people with skin of color, the patches are brown or gray.

“Anyone can get ringworm, and it can appear on just about any part of the body,” said Dr. Piliang. “However, ringworm can look different on other parts of the body, which is probably why it goes by different names. On your scalp, groin, nails, the palms of your hands, and the soles of your feet, ringworm lacks the ring-shaped pattern.”

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the risk of getting ringworm increases in the following conditions:

  • Spending time in hot, humid weather;
  • Sweating heavily;
  • Playing contact sports like wrestling or football;
  • Having contact with an infected pet;
  • Living in close quarters with others, such as in military housing or college dorms;
  • Sharing personal belonging like towels, clothes, razors, without disinfecting or washing them;
  • Wearing clothing that chafes the skin;
  • Using a locker room or pool without washing and drying feet before putting on socks and shoes.

Risks are also higher in individuals who are obese or have diabetes.

“Ringworm is very contagious,” said Dr. Piliang. “You can get it by touching an infected person’s skin, petting an infected animal, touching soil infected with ringworm, or using an infected object, like a phone, comb, or towel.”

For individuals who do notice the signs or symptoms of ringworm, Dr. Piliang recommends the following:

  1. See a doctor or board-certified dermatologist.
  2. Keep the infected area clean and dry.
  3. Avoid sharing personal belongings.
  4. Wash hands often if touching the infected area.
  5. Treat the area for as long as recommended with an antifungal medication.

“Every case of ringworm can be successfully treated, but sometimes it can be stubborn,” concluded Dr. Piliang. “It’s important to follow your dermatologist’s treatment plan and keep all of your follow-up appointments. If your treatment fails to clear the rash or your infection gets worse, call your dermatologist.”

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