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Ringworm - What is ringworm?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


Ringworm is a skin infection. Despite the name, it has nothing to do with worms. It's caused by a fungus, a lot like the one that causes athlete's foot. Ringworm gets its name from the ring-shaped rash it sometimes causes.

We've brought together the best research about ringworm and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor or pharmacist and decide which treatments are best for you.

Ringworm is a skin infection. Despite the name, it’s not actually caused by a worm. Ringworm happens when a fungus infects your skin, in a similar way to athlete's foot.

Fungal infections can affect any part of your skin. But the word 'ringworm' only tends to be used for fungal infections that affect either smooth patches of skin on your body or your scalp.

When ringworm affects a smooth patch of skin on your body, it can cause a ring-shaped rash. This is how it gets its name.ringworm_image_default.jpg

However, ringworm doesn't always cause a ring-shaped rash. For example, ringworm that affects your groin tends to cause a large patch of red skin around the crease at the top of your thighs. When ringworm affects your scalp it causes patches of hair loss. To read more, see What are the symptoms of ringworm?

The technical name for ringworm is a tinea infection. Here are the different types of ringworm you can get.

  • Ringworm of the body. Anyone can get this, although it's especially common in children.[1]

  • Ringworm of the groin. This is sometimes called jock itch or dhobie itch. It's more common in men and teenage boys, especially if they play lots of sport.

  • Ringworm of the scalp. Scalp ringworm is much more common in children than adults.

  • Beard ringworm. Ringworm can affect the beard area in men.

Ringworm on the body or groin can often be cured with a cream to kill the fungus. Scalp or beard ringworm needs to be treated with tablets. More severe cases of body ringworm sometimes need treating with tablets too.

What causes ringworm?

Several types of fungi can infect your skin and cause ringworm. You can pick up these fungi in a few different ways.[2]

  • An infected person can pass the fungi on to someone else through close physical contact. Athletes who have a lot of skin-to-skin contact, such as wrestlers, can be at risk of getting ringworm.

  • Fungi can be spread through touching personal items. For example, you could catch ringworm by sharing a comb, towels, or bedding. But it's not clear how easy it is to catch ringworm this way. It's probably harder to catch ringworm from objects than from direct contact.

  • Fungal infections can spread between different parts of your body. Lots of men with groin ringworm also have athlete's foot. This may be because they transfer the infection after touching or scratching their feet.

  • You can catch ringworm from contact with an infected animal. Dogs and cats can get ringworm, and so can some farm animals, such as cows. Ringworm on an animal often looks like a bald spot on their fur.

  • You can pick up fungi from objects that have been contaminated by an animal with ringworm. Carpets or clothes with pet hair on them could cause ringworm in humans.

  • Fungi that cause ringworm are sometimes found in soil. But it's very rare for people to get ringworm from soil.

Scalp ringworm almost always affects young children. Although ringworm can be spread from person to person, it's not usually recommended that children stay off school once they've started treatment.[2] Children will often have had scalp ringworm for a while before anyone notices. So, by the time a child is diagnosed, it's probably too late to be worth keeping them off school. Some doctors recommend an antifungal shampoo to help reduce the chances of a child passing on scalp ringworm to other children.

Last Updated: June 21, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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