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What is ringworm?

Someone applying white cream to a ringworm rash
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Ringworm is a common skin problem caused by a fungal infection. It can lead to an itchy, ring-shaped rash. If you have a new or unexplained rash in a ring shape, you may have ringworm.

In this guide, we’ll explore:

  • The causes of ringworm
  • How do you catch ringworm?
  • Ringworm symptoms
  • How you can treat ringworm
  • How to prevent ringworm from spreading

What causes ringworm?

The name “ringworm” is very misleading, as the actual cause of the rash has nothing to do with a worm. Ringworm is when the skin gets infected by fungi. You can catch ringworm from other people, animals or the environment. The characteristic rash is ring-shaped, leading to its name.

In most cases, ringworm is easily treatable using anti-fungal medicines from a pharmacist.

How do you catch ringworm?

You can get ringworm by coming into physical contact with the fungus. There are three main ways you might catch ringworm:

  • Close contact with a person or animal that has ringworm
  • Contact with contaminated objects, like bedsheets or towels
  • Contact with soil that contains the fungus

The symptoms of ringworm

Ringworm most commonly causes a ring-shaped rash which can be scaly, dry, swollen and itchy.

Large patches of ringworm on a person's back

It is usually red or silvery in colour and may be less noticeable on black or brown skin.

Illustration of ringworm on a black person's arm

Ringworm often appears on your body but can also be found in other areas:

  • Scalp ringworm (tinea capitis) – causes scaly, itchy spots and sores, which can lead to hair loss 
Illustration of ringworm on someone's scalp

  • Groin ringworm (tine cruris) – also known as jock itch, causes itching and redness around the groin area or scaly, itchy spots often on the inner thighs
  • Foot ringworm (tinea pedis) – usually called athlete’s foot, causes red, itchy, peeling skin between the toes. In more severe cases swelling, blisters and cracked skin may be seen. 
  • Hand ringworm (tinea manuum) – makes the skin on the palm and between the fingers thicker
  • Nail ringworm (onychomycosis) – the nail gets thicker, discoloured and brittle

If you have itchy, dry skin that you don’t think is caused by ringworm, read our guide on the causes of dry skin to understand your symptoms better.

How can you treat ringworm?

For the majority of people with ringworm, a visit to the doctor is not needed. Most cases of ringworm can be treated by visiting a local pharmacy, although pharmacists may refer children with ringworm to their GP as a precaution. Pharmacists often recommend an anti-fungal cream, gel or spray and advise you how to use the medication. Treatment can take up to four weeks.

You may need to see your doctor about ringworm if:

  • Your ringworm is still there after an over-the-counter treatment is complete
  • You have ringworm on your scalp, as this may need tablets or medicated shampoo
  • You take medication or have a condition that weakens your immune system, such as chemotherapy, steroid treatment or diabetes

How can you prevent ringworm from spreading?

Ringworm can be passed between people. If someone you live with has ringworm, or if you’re in close contact with someone who has it, you’re at risk of catching it.

Fortunately, you can take several steps to get rid of the fungus and reduce the chance of it spreading.

Some simple things that you can do include:

  • Start applying over-the-counter treatment as soon as the rash has been confirmed as ringworm by your doctor or pharmacist
  • Avoid sharing towels, combs, bedding and other items with someone who has ringworm, as the fungus can remain on surfaces and objects that they have been in contact with
  • Wash all items that someone with ringworm has contacted, including bedding and towels
  • Clean your hands using soap or hand sanitiser after touching animals
  • Check your skin regularly if you have been in contact with someone who has ringworm
  • Take your pet to the vet if they have any ringworm symptoms, including itchy rashes and loss of fur
  • If you have ringworm, avoid scratching the rash, as this could cause the ringworm to spread

A final note on ringworm

Ringworm is usually easy to treat with an over-the-counter cream or ointment. Always take care not to pass it to others.

For some people with difficult-to-treat ringworm or medical conditions that could complicate treatment, a visit to the doctor is needed for prescription medication such as tablets or medicated shampoo.

If you want to know more about skin conditions, read our guides on dermatitis and eczema.