What is ringworm?

Although it’s called ringworm, it is not a worm at all. It’s really a skin fungus species, also called dermatophytes, which literally means plants that grow on the skin.

While you’re not going to sprout a tree out of the ring of infection, the effects of ringworm aren’t pleasant. Spotting it early and seeking treatment will help keep the fungus from spreading to another part of your body or to someone else.

Scott & White family physician and dermatology expert, Bruce Hoekstra, MD, explains why ringworm occurs and how it’s treated.

What causes ringworm?

There are several different organisms that cause ringworm, and moisture and heat can accelerate the growth of the fungal organisms. That is why the infection is more common during hot weather and in areas where the skin folds over on itself.

“The organisms that cause ringworm are commonly found, so it could be difficult to avoid contact with them,” Dr. Hoekstra said.

A type of bacteria called tinea lives on your body. When that bacterium grows and increases, ringworm can occur. The infection can affect the skin on your face, body, feet, groin, and scalp, and is extremely contagious.

How do I know if I have ringworm?


The infection appears in red, itchy patches on the affected skin. They can appear slowly or appear suddenly, and are generally not painful.

“Typically the patches are active along the red, scaly edges and more clear and inactive in the center,” Dr. Hoekstra said.

The diagnosis is made either by the characteristic appearance of the rash or by scraping off some of the skin in the affected area, which is examined under a microscope.

What are the effects of ringworm?

The rings of infection aren’t normally painful, but they can be itchy and irritating to the skin. The best way to keep from scratching is to keep the area covered with long sleeves or a bandage. This will help you avoid dragging dirty fingernails over the affected areas and keep you from spreading it to others,

Another unpleasant effect of ringworm, is that if it takes root on your scalp, then it could cause hair loss or bald spots to appear. If this happens to you, you should contact your doctor. The infection may need a more aggressive treatment.

How do I keep from getting ringworm?

The best defense against the itchy, scaly infection is to keep cool and dry and use a moisture barrier on the skin like Vaseline or Aquaphor.

“Other helpful preventative measures include: wearing a different pair of shoes on alternate days to allow thorough drying, wear shoes or shower sandals in public pools or showers and thoroughly washing and drying feet between the toes,” the doctor said.

It also may be a good idea to use bleach-containing products in the bathtub or shower and in the washing machine to limit fungal growth.

“Since pets can also carry fungal spores, pets with a rash or excessive itching should be checked by a veterinarian.”

How is ringworm treated?

Treatment includes using the preventative mentioned above, and applying a prescription or over-the-counter topical cream or spray.

If you do contract ringworm, it may also be a good idea to:

  • Wear loose-fitting clothing, so they do not cause irritation in the affected areas
  • Wash clothing, sheets and other bedding to limit the risk of becoming re-infected
  • Wash combs and other hygiene items that have come in contact with the infection

For widespread or resistant infections, oral medication is available.

“The oral anti-fungal medications can be rough on the liver, so blood testing is often done when they are prescribed.

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.

About the author

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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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What is ringworm?