What do athlete's foot, jock itch, and barber's itch all have in common? They are all cases of ringworm, say dermatologists from the American Academy of Dermatology. However, despite its name, ringworm is a skin infection caused by a fungus, not a worm. It is very common, and your risk increases in hot, humid weather.
"On most areas of the skin, ringworm causes flat, ring-shaped patches to develop," said Melissa Piliang, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. "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."
On people with lighter skin tones, the patches tend to be red or pink, says Dr. Piliang. On people with skin of color, the patches tend to be brown or gray. They can be intensely itchy, she says, and they can grow slowly – increasing in size and appearing on more areas of the body.
"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, your risk of getting ringworm increases if you:
- Spend time in hot, humid weather
- Sweat heavily
- Play a contact sport, such as wrestling or football
- Have contact with an infected pet
- Live in close contact with others, such as in military housing or college dorm rooms
- Share personal belongings, such as towels, clothes, razors and other things without disinfecting or washing them
- Wear clothing that chafes your skin
- Use a locker room or pool without washing and drying your feet before putting on your socks and shoes
- Are obese
- 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."
If you notice any signs or symptoms of ringworm, Dr. Piliang recommends the following tips:
- See your doctor or a board-certified dermatologist. You could have ringworm or another type of skin infection, and treatment can cure the infection.
- Keep the infected area clean and dry, as ringworm thrives in warm, moist areas.
- Avoid sharing personal belongings. Ringworm is very contagious. If you're diagnosed, avoid sharing towels, hats, combs and other personal items to avoid spreading the disease.
- Wash your hands after touching the infected area. Touching or scratching the area with ringworm and then touching another area can spread ringworm from one part of your body to another. Washing your hands well can help prevent this.
- Treat the area for as long as recommended. Ringworm is treated with antifungal medication, which can take the form of a cream, ointment or pill. If you're diagnosed with ringworm, your treatment will depend on the size of the infection and its location on your body. If you're instructed to use over-the-counter antifungal medication, follow the directions on the package. If you're prescribed stronger antifungal medication, treat the area for as long as recommended by your dermatologist to prevent the infection from reappearing.
"Every case of ringworm can be successfully treated, but sometimes it can be stubborn," said 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."
These tips are demonstrated in "Do I Have Ringworm?", a video posted to the AAD website and YouTube channel. This video is part of the AAD's "Video of the Month" series, which offers tips people can use to properly care for their skin, hair, and nails. A new video in the series posts to the AAD website and YouTube channel each month.