What You Should Know About Ringworm

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on December 19, 2023
9 min read

Ringworm doesn't come from a worm. It’s a skin infection that’s caused by mold-like fungi that live on the dead tissues of your skin, hair, nails, or on your scalp. Ringworm's name comes from the fact that it leaves a circular rash on the skin. The condition is also known as “tinea” or “dermatophytosis.”


About 40 different species of fungi can cause ringworm on the skin. Fungi like warm, moist environments, whether it's a rainforest or a sweaty locker room. Ringworm is very common and easy to catch because it spreads via contact with infected people and the things they use.

Many types of ringworm are named based on their specific location in the body. These include:

  • Athlete's foot (tinea pedis). This type of ringworm affects the skin between the toes or on the soles of your feet. It causes scaly, peeling, or cracked skin and sometimes blisters. You may feel itchy, especially after taking off your shoes and socks, and your feet might smell bad. You can get athlete's foot if you wear tight-fitting shoes and your feet become sweaty. This condition is common among athletes and other people who sweat heavily.
  • Jock itch (tinea cruris). This type of ringworm causes an itchy rash in the groin area and between your thighs. It's common among athletes and others who sweat a lot.
  • Scalp ringworm (tinea capitis). This is more common among children than adults. It leaves them with an itchy scalp and bald round patches on the head. If left untreated, the patches will get bigger and have small black dots where the hair breaks off.
  • Ringworm on the hands (tinea manuum). This leaves you with dry cracked skin on your palms and ring-shaped patches on the back of your hands.
  • Beard ringworm (tinea barbae). Symptoms include itchy, scaly red spots on the cheeks, chin, and upper neck of men with beards. These may cause hair to fall out and pustules to develop. It's fairly rare but seen among farmers and ranchers who probably get it from infected animals.
  • Ringworm on the nails (tinea unguium or onychomycosis). Instead of a rash, your nails will thicken, discolor, and start to peel away from the nail bed. The condition is more common on toenails than on fingernails. People who have athlete's foot may find ringworm affecting their toenails.

You can also get ringworm on any other part of your skin such as your arms, legs, chest, and face. The general name is ringworm of the body (tinea corporis).

The telltale sign of ringworm is a flat red, scaly patch on light skin or a flat brown or gray patch on darker skin. You may also get bumps that itch. Over time, the bump turns into a ring- or circle-shaped patch. It may turn into several rings or patches as it spreads. The inside of the patch is usually clear or scaly. The outside might be slightly raised and bumpy. The bumps may turn into pustules.

Ringworm will look different when it grows on the feet, nails, groin, beard area, and scalp as we outlined earlier. If it's an area with hair, the hair might start to fall out. Nails may get discolored and break off. In the groin area, you might get an itch.

Ringworm is highly contagious. The fungi that cause it live naturally in your nails, skin, and hair. But when the environment is hot and humid, the fungi start to multiply. You can also get ringworm in cool weather because it spreads so easily.

You can catch ringworm in any of the following ways:

  • From another person. You get infected when your skin makes contact with the fungi from someone else's skin.
  • From animals. Rubbing or grooming your pet? Wash your hands when you’re finished. Ringworm's also very common in cows.
  • From touching objects. The fungus that causes ringworm can linger on surfaces, floors, clothes, towels, and in combs and brushes.
  • From soil. If you’re working or standing barefoot in soil that’s infected with the fungus that causes ringworm, you can get it, too.

Anyone can get ringworm. But not everyone exposed to it will get it. Some factors make it more likely for you to get it. These include:

  • Having an autoimmune disease or a weakened immune system
  • Living in a tropical climate
  • Spending time in hot, humid weather
  • Playing contact sports such as wrestling and football
  • Using public locker rooms or public showers without wearing shoes
  • Living in close contact with others (such as in military housing)
  • Sharing towels or clothes without washing them first
  • Not drying out your feet properly before putting on shoes and socks
  • Being obese
  • Wearing clothes that are tight or might chafe your skin
  • Having diabetes

You’ll have to see your doctor or a dermatologist (a doctor specializing in skin conditions) to be sure if the infection is ringworm. There are several other skin conditions that look like it.

Your doctor might suspect ringworm just from looking at the affected areas of your skin. But to be sure, they'll probably scrape some skin from the itchy, scaly areas and look at it under a microscope. If the ringworm is in your scalp or beard, they'll take some hair samples. If it's on your nails, they'll take a nail clipping. Your doctor can look at these under a microscope to see if any of the fungi that cause ringworm are present.

They might perform a KOH test to make the diagnosis. Your doctor takes the skin scrapings and adds a liquid containing the chemical potassium hydroxide (KOH). KOH dissolves the cellular material, which makes it easier to see any fungi under the microscope.

Wood's lamp test

This is another way to diagnose skin conditions, developed by American physicist Robert Wood. You sit in your doctor's office with all the lights turned off. The doctor turns on the Wood lamp, which uses ultraviolet light, and holds it 5 inches from your skin to look for color changes. Certain fungi will cause the affected areas to change color under the light. The exam time is very short and you'll be told not to look at the light while it's on.

How the infection is treated depends on where it is and how bad it is. In many cases, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, which you can get at a drugstore. If ringworm is on your skin, an OTC antifungal cream, lotion, or powder may work just fine. Some of the most popular ones are clotrimazole (Lotrimin, Mycelex) and miconazole (Monistat-Derm, Desenex).

In most cases, you’ll have to use the medicines on your skin for 2-4 weeks to make sure you kill the fungus that causes ringworm and lower its chances of coming back. Treat all areas where you have ringworm at the same time (for instance, your hands and feet). Because it's so contagious, treating just one body part will encourage it to spread.

Don't use corticosteroid creams to treat ringworm. Steroid creams can treat redness and itching but they won't kill the fungus causing the infection. The creams can even make things worse by weakening your skin's defenses, which allow the fungus to spread on your body. OTC steroid creams in the U.S. are not very powerful, but in other countries, OTC steroid creams are much stronger and can make ringworm a lot worse if you use them.

Wash any items you wore before getting treatment in hot soapy water or disinfect them. If you got athlete's foot, you may need to throw out your sneakers. If you don't want to do that, disinfect them with an ultraviolet shoe sanitizer or ozone cabinet that you can buy online.

Ringworm on Scalp

If you have ringworm on your scalp or in many different places on your body, OTC treatments probably won’t be enough. Your doctor will write you a prescription for pills. They may also write a prescription if you still have symptoms after 2 weeks of using OTC medications.

Prescription pills include fluconazole (Diflucan), griseofulvin (Griasctin), itraconazole (Sporanox) and terbinafine (Lamisil). You usually take them for 1-3 months.

If you have ringworm on your scalp, in addition to taking a prescription pill, your doctor may advise you to use an antifungal shampoo, such as ketoconazole shampoo (Nizoral), to keep the infection from spreading. Other family members may also need to use it to avoid catching ringworm.


Ringworm itself won't affect your pregnancy. However, you should be careful how you treat it. OTC creams are safe to use. Some prescription pills have been reported to cause birth defects or miscarriages, while for others, there is no data on their use during pregnancy. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, be sure to tell your doctor if they're treating you for ringworm.

Natural remedies such as apple cider vinegar, honey, coconut oil, and aloe vera have not been shown to be effective for treating ringworm. Some may soothe itching and inflammation but not treat the fungus that causes ringworm. In fact, doctors warn against apple cider vinegar because it can cause open sores and scarring if you apply it directly to the affected area.

Tea tree oil has been shown to be effective in treating athlete's foot, according to a 2002 study. But whether that carries over to treating other types of ringworm is not known.

The fungi that cause it are everywhere. Still, there are some things you can do to lower your chances of getting ringworm or to stop it from spreading:

  • Keep your skin clean and dry.
  • Wear flip-flops in locker rooms and public showers.
  • Change your socks and underwear at least once each day.
  • Don’t share clothes, combs, brushes, or towels.
  • If you play sports, keep your gear and uniform clean, and don’t share them with other players.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after playing with pets. If your pets have ringworm, see your vet.
  • Disinfect surfaces and floors. Spray down gym equipment, including exercise mats.
  • Wash all bedding, towels, and clothes in hot water with detergent.
  • If you touch a body part with ringworm, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water before you touch another body part or surface.

Ringworm rarely causes serious complications. But you could get:

  • Kerion. Ringworm of the scalp can develop into an inflammation called kerion, which is a collection of pus-filled swellings with a yellow crust on your head. Without treatment, it can cause permanent hair loss and scarring.
  • Hyperpigmentation. After your ringworm rash has healed, you may see dark marks on your skin. This is more common in people of African, Asian, or Hispanic descent than in white people.
  • Nail deformities. Ringworm on your nails can leave them deformed, broken, and discolored.
  • Infection. If cracked skin is not treated, it allows bacteria to enter, giving you a secondary infection. Signs of this include a high fever or chills and a smelly discharge from the affected area.
  • Majocchi's granuloma. This is a rare hair follicle infection caused by ringworm. Pus-filled pink-red spots are common and hair can be easily removed. It can occur in any part of the body with hair, but it's most often seen on the scalp, face, forearms, and legs.

Ringworm is very contagious but easily treatable. If an OTC cream doesn't work, your doctor will prescribe some pills for you to take. Be careful not to spread it around by sharing clothes and linens with others or touching someone else.

What are two signs of ringworm?

Two signs include itchy skin and a ring-shaped patch on your skin.

How do you get rid of ringworm quickly?

Use an antifungal cream or medication. You might see results in a few days, but use it as long as your doctor recommends.

Does ringworm go away on its own?

It can, but it might take a few weeks to a few months. And in the meantime, it might spread to other parts of your body or to other people. It's much better to get treatment from the pharmacy than to wait it out or use home remedies.