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How to spot, treat and reduce your risks for ringworm

Although it’s called ringworm, it is not a worm at all. It’s a common skin infection caused by a fungus that anyone can get.

While there are no worms involved, the effects of ringworm still aren’t pleasant. Spotting it early and seeking treatment will help keep the highly contagious infection from spreading to another part of your body or to someone else.

What is ringworm?

Trillions of microorganisms live on or inside our bodies. Some are useful; others, like ringworm, are unwanted and can lead to infection.

Ringworm may be uncomfortable and annoying, but fortunately, the fungal infection is treatable and rarely spreads below the skin’s surface to cause serious illness.

Ringworm gets its name from the wavy, ring-like rash that can show up on the skin and appear in various ways on the scalp, groin, hands, and feet.

Ringworm is common. You’ve already had it if you had:

What are the symptoms of ringworm?

The signs of ringworm depend on the location of the infection. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • A scaly ring-shaped area, typically on the buttocks, trunk, arms and legs
  • Itchiness
  • A clear or scaly area inside the ring, sometimes with a scattering of bumps with color ranging from red on light-colored skin to reddish, purplish, brown, or gray on black and brown-colored skin
  • Lightly raised, expanding rings
  • A round, flat patch of itchy skin
  • Overlapping rings

What causes ringworm?

Ringworm thrives in warm, moist areas and spreads easily to animals, surfaces and everyday objects, such as clothes, towels and bedding. Your risk of getting ringworm increases if you

  • Live in a tropical area
  • Spend time in hot, humid weather
  • Sweat heavily
  • Wrestle, play football or take part in other skin-to-skin contact sports
  • Have close contact with an infected person or animal
  • Share towels, clothes, razors, etc. without disinfecting or washing them in between uses
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Wear tight or restrictive clothing
  • Use a locker room or pool and don’t wash and dry your feet well before putting on shoes and socks

How is ringworm treated?

Your dermatologist will treat ringworm with antifungal medicine that comes in forms like pills, creams and ointments, depending on where you need treatment

A mild case of athlete’s foot may clear up in a couple of weeks with an over-the-counter antifungal cream or spray. Other areas, such as the nails and hands, may take more time to heal.

Can I prevent ringworm?

Because the itchy, scaly infection is contagious even before symptoms appear, it’s tough to prevent ringworm. Follow these tips to lower your risk.

Educate yourself and others

Be aware of the risk of ringworm from infected people or pets. Tell your children about ringworm, what to watch for and how to avoid infection.

Keep clean

Wash your hands often. Keep shared areas clean, especially in schools, childcare centers, gyms and locker rooms. If you play contact sports, shower right after practice or your game or match, and keep your uniform and gear clean.

Stay cool and dry

Don’t wear thick clothing for long periods in warm, humid weather. Avoid excessive sweating.

Avoid infected animals

The infection often looks like a patch of skin where fur is missing. If you have pets or other animals, ask your veterinarian to check them for ringworm.

Don’t share personal items

Don’t let others use your clothing, towels, hairbrushes, sports gear or other personal items. And don’t borrow others.

Most ringworm infections only last a few days or weeks, but nail fungus infections could take months to treat. See your healthcare provider if your symptoms worsen or persist over a long period of time.

For images of the various types of ringworm and other helpful resources, visit the American Academy of Dermatology Association.

Find dermatology care near you.

How to spot, treat and reduce your risks for ringworm