Ringworm of the body is a fungal infection that develops on the top layer of your skin. It's characterized by a red circular rash with clearer skin in the middle. It may itch. Ringworm gets its name because of its appearance. No actual worm is involved.
Also called tinea corporis, ringworm of the body is closely related to athlete's foot (tinea pedis), jock itch (tinea cruris) and ringworm of the scalp (tinea capitis). Ringworm often spreads by direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or animal.
Mild ringworm often responds to antifungal medications that you apply to your skin. For more-severe infections, you may need to take antifungal pills for several weeks.
Ringworm typically begins as a flat scaly area on the skin, which may be red and itchy. This patch develops a slightly raised border that expands outward — forming a roughly circular ring. The contours of the ring may be quite irregular, resembling the wavy outline of a snake or a worm.
The interior of the ring may be clear, scaly or marked with a scattering of red bumps. In some people, several rings develop at the same time and may overlap.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have a rash on your skin that doesn't begin to improve within two weeks. You may need prescription medication.
Ringworm is a contagious fungal infection caused by mold-like parasites that live on the cells in the outer layer of your skin. It can be spread in the following ways:
- Human to human. Ringworm often spreads by direct, skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
- Animal to human. You can contract ringworm by touching an animal with ringworm. Ringworm can spread while petting or grooming dogs or cats. It's also fairly common in cows.
- Object to human. Ringworm can spread by contact with objects or surfaces that an infected person or animal has recently touched or rubbed against, such as clothing, towels, bedding and linens, combs, and brushes.
- Soil to human. In rare cases, ringworm can be spread to humans by contact with infected soil. Infection would most likely occur only from prolonged contact with highly infected soil.
You're at higher risk of ringworm of the body if you:
- Live in a warm climate
- Have close contact with an infected person or animal
- Share clothing, bedding or towels with someone who has a fungal infection
- Participate in sports that feature skin-to-skin contact, such as wrestling
- Wear tight or restrictive clothing
- Have a weakened immune system
A fungal infection rarely spreads below the surface of the skin to cause serious illness. But people with weak immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, may find it difficult to get rid of the infection.
Ringworm is difficult to prevent. The fungus that causes ringworm is common and contagious even before symptoms appear. Help reduce your risk of ringworm by taking these steps:
- 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 the infection.
- Keep clean. Wash your hands often to avoid the spread of infection. Keep common or shared areas clean, especially in schools, child care centers, gyms and locker rooms.
- Stay cool and dry. Don't wear thick clothing for long periods of time in warm, humid weather. Avoid excessive sweating.
- Avoid infected animals. The infection often looks like a patch of skin where fur is missing. In some cases, though, you may not notice any signs of the disease. Ask your veterinarian to check your pets and domesticated animals for ringworm.
- Don't share personal items. Don't let others use your clothing, towels, hairbrushes or other personal items. Refrain from borrowing these items from others as well.
Your doctor might be able to diagnose ringworm simply by looking at it. If the diagnosis isn't clear-cut, he or she may want to take some skin scrapings from the affected area so they can be examined under a microscope.
If over-the-counter treatments don't work, you may need prescription-strength antifungal medications — such as creams or lotions that you apply to the affected skin. If your infection is particularly severe or extensive, your doctor might prescribe antifungal pills.
For a mild case of ringworm, you can apply an over-the-counter antifungal lotion or cream. Examples include clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF) and terbinafine (Lamisil AT).
Your family doctor or a skin specialist (dermatologist) can diagnose ringworm of the body. Here are some tips to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions helps you make the most of your appointment. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For ringworm, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What might be causing the signs and symptoms?
- Are tests needed to confirm the diagnosis?
- What is the best treatment?
- Is this condition temporary or chronic?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
- Can I wait to see if the condition goes away on its own?
- What can I do to prevent the infection from spreading?
- What skin care routines do you recommend while the condition heals?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- When did you first notice your symptoms?
- What did the rash look like when it first started?
- Have you had this type of rash in the past?
- Does a pet or family member already have ringworm?
- Is the rash painful or itchy?
- Have you used any medications on it already? If so, what?